ISTANBUL — 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.