News / Europe

Turkish Leaders Aim to Turn Hagia Sophia Back into a Mosque

King Harald and Queen Sonja of Norway  pose in front of Hagia Sophia Mosque on November 7, 2013 in Istanbul, Turkey.
King Harald and Queen Sonja of Norway pose in front of Hagia Sophia Mosque on November 7, 2013 in Istanbul, Turkey.
Dorian Jones
A senior Turkish minister’s call to turn Istanbul’s Hagia Sophia - now  a museum -- back into a mosque has provoked a religious and diplomatic row. The Hagia Sofia, which was originally built as a church, remains an important symbol of Christianity for many Christians.

The status of the mosque has always remained contentious. For 1000 years it was Christendom’s most important church at the center of the Byzantium Empire. With the fall of then Constantinople to the Ottoman Turks it was turned into a mosque. Then in 1931 Turkey’s secular rulers turned it into a museum. Now deputy Prime Minister Bulent Arinc, during a visit earlier this month to the Hagia Sofia, has indicated change again could be in the offing.

He said there was a time when former mosques could function as museums, but there is a different Turkey now. He said the Hagia Sophia is sad now but God willing it will soon smile again.

Professor Istar Gozaydin of Istanbul’s Dogus University is an expert on religion and the state. She says elections and politics are likely to be behind such a move.

"For the pro-Islamic government it’s important to have the monument be a mosque," she said. "So why now are they trying to convert it back to a mosque? It’s got to do with the current political climate in the country, the local elections approaching that would be a significant source for votes."

Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan is already in campaign mode touring the country rallying the faithful, often using a mix of religion and nationalist rhetoric. Analysts point out turning the Hagia Sophia  back into a mosque will also play well among many nationalist voters, who see it as a symbol of the once mighty Turkish Ottoman Empire.

Along with millions of tourists, many Turks also visit the Hagia Sofia annually. One young Turkish person says he has no doubt that it should be turned back into a mosque.

"We don't want to lose our culture; we want to come here for Friday prayers," he said. "I believe with our prime minister and deputy prime minster's support it will be a mosque again.

Istanbul is home to the Orthodox Church’s Ecumenical Patriarchate. Concern has already been growing with the government’s recent conversion from museums to mosques of two smaller historical churches that share the Hagia Sophia's name.

Eminence Metropolitan Genadios of Sassima warns that the turning of Istanbul’s Hagia Sofia into a mosque would be a step too far.

"They have to realize very concretely how seriously the consequences of the whole world and the international community and how it will react," Genadios said. "Because this historical monument is visited every year by millions of people, Christians and non-Christians who realize it’s the image and picture of a religion, which is Christianity."

Athens has already condemned even the suggestion of converting the Hagia Sofia to a mosque. But Turkish foreign ministry spokesman Levant Gumrukcu says Ankara does not need lectures on religious freedom.

"Turkey’s record in terms of respecting the sanctity of religious places is very well known. It does not need to be proven at all."

Observers warn, the war of words could well be just a harbinger of things to come, with the Orthodox Church having powerful allies both in Washington and Brussels.

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Comment Sorting
by: Amro from: Poland
December 08, 2013 12:31 PM
Cordoba mosque in spain is now a church, they left no respect for any muslims, same in sicilia italy, many mosques were converted to churches, aya sofia will be a mosque again, specially that the majority of istanbul population are muslims, and if the People of istanbul vote for converting aya sofia back to a mosque, WHY NOT., Istanbul pas constantinople

by: Keys
November 29, 2013 5:42 PM
Who are these people who want to convert Aghia Sophia back to a mosque? Why do these people want to go backwards in time making clear their views about the role they want Turkey to have in today's world? Is this how they want to show the sensitivity and respect Turks claim to have towards other people? Are these people serious about Turkey's aspirations to become part of Europe? Do these people think that having taken Aghia Sophia by force gives them the moral right to do anything they like with it?

by: Tarkan from: Turkey
November 29, 2013 2:55 PM
now you know... for all the skeptics out there who thought that Turkey is a "Modern Islamic State..." look how wrong you all were... Turkey is a degenerate repressive Muslim terrorist State. A NATO member who sends Al Qaeda into Syria to kill innocents. where is the USA??? what happened to the USA..??

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