Dr. Ioannis E. Kotoulas
In July, the Turkish government under President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan turned Hagia Sophia, the most iconic church of the Orthodox Christian world, into a mosque. In August, the historical Church of the Holy Saviour in Chora was also turned into a mosque. With these initiatives, Turkey has decidedly declared its aspiration to confront the Western world and bring back to life the dynastic reality of the Ottoman Empire and its geopolitical aspirations. The decision of the Turkish regime carries specific historical and ideological connotations, and is a direct assault on religious pluralism and history itself. With its connotations and disregard of the historical and religious importance of Christian churches, and especially the great historical importance of Hagia Sophia for Christianity, this decision is an act of cultural genocide against Orthodox Christianity.
Cultural genocide can be properly defined as the coordinated totality of acts and measures undertaken to destroy the historical culture of nations or ethnic groups through spiritual, national, and cultural destruction or symbolical appropriation of their cultural legacy. The conversion of the historical Christian church of Hagia Sophia into a mosque falls into this category. As relevant detailed reports have shown, Turkey has already implemented relevant measures of cultural genocide against the historical culture of the Greek Cypriot population in the northern part of Cyprus, occupied by the Turkish army since 1974. In the occupied part of Cyprus, at least 55 churches have been converted into mosques and another 50 churches and monasteries have been converted into stables, stores, hostels, or museums, or have been demolished.
In August the status of the historical Church of the Holy Saviour in Chora was changed and the monument was reconverted to a mosque. This new decision by the Turkish government followed a 2019 decision by the Turkish Council of State that actually paved the way for the decision concerning Hagia Sophia. This unique monument contains some of the oldest and finest surviving mosaics and frescoes of Byzantine art, indicative of the Palaeologian Renaissance.
On July 10, Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan signed an executive decree that turned the historical Christian church of Hagia Sophia located in modern day’s Istanbul’s central Fatih district into a full-fledged mosque reclassifying it from a museum. Just one hour before, a Turkish court ruling had revoked the monument’s status as a museum, thereby annulling the 1934 presidential decree that had initially made Hagia Sophia a museum. In a hasty meeting that lasted just seventeen minutes, the court ruled that Hagia Sophia was owned by a religious foundation established by Mehmet II, the conquering emperor of Constantinople. According to the court’s reasoning Hagia Sophia was presented to the community of the faithful as a mosque and thus its status cannot be changed, therefore the 1934 decree had not been valid and needs to be annulled. The decree signed by Erdogan transfers the management of the site from the Ministry of Culture, where it was as a monument, to the Presidency of Religious Affairs, paving the way for its conversion.
According to a televised speech by President Erdogan, Hagia Sophia will begin its function as a mosque and open for Friday prayers on July 24. July 24 is not a random date; on this day in 1923 the Treaty of Lausanne was signed between Turkey and Greece that solidified the existing status quo between the two countries. Turkey clearly states its revisionist intentions to the international community. Erdogan thus fulfilled an aspiration of Islamist circles, both in Turkey and abroad, that had long called for its conversion into a mosque. He also further dismantles the secular legacy of Kemalism and its connections to the Western world.
Manipulation of justice in Erdoğan’s increasingly autocratic regime thus meets Islamist aspirations. The very fact that the Supreme Court of Turkey invokes an Islamic perception of law issued hundreds of years ago, before the foundation of the Turkish Republic and its legal order, demonstrates the fundamental transformation of the underlying ideological structure of the Turkish state under the Erdoğan regime. In the past the same court had on numerous occasions ruled that the use of Hagia Sophia as a museum is legal (relevant rulings were issued in 1945, 2005, 2006 and 2008). The formative principles of the historical peculiarity of Orthodox Christianity are intricately linked to the symbolism and the special historical image of the Hagia Sophia church. By turning Hagia Sophia into a mosque the Turkish regime explicitly declares its Islamist identity towards those in the Islamic world willing to perceive such a message.
Hagia Sophia (‘the Church of the Holy Wisdom of God’) is a unique monument per se and unlike any of the numerous Byzantine churches scattered in modern Turkey. It is the ideological and symbolic centre of Orthodox Christianity having served as its main church for nearly a thousand years. Its symbolic and spiritual importance equals that of St Peter in Rome, with which they formed the twin ideological centres of Christian culture. Designed by the prominent Greek architects Isidore of Miletus and Anthemius of Tralles and built in the early 6th century under the auspices of the Byzantine emperor Justinian, Hagia Sophia, the greatest Christian cathedral for nearly a thousand years, is a marvel of architecture incorporating both post-Roman and Eastern influences. Its huge dome, a depiction of heavenly skies, dominates the building, while in the interior magnificent wall mosaics present Christian religious figures and Byzantine emperors. After the Ottoman conquest of Constantinople in 1453 the iconic church was turned into a mosque for Islamic prayers, while four minarets were added on the exterior. Still, the monumental aspect of Hagia Sophia influenced Islamic religious architecture, as many Ottoman mosques were modelled after its design, the Blue Mosque being the most known among them. After the dissolution of the Ottoman Empire in 1923 and amidst the secularizing programme adopted by Mustafa Kemal Hagia Sophia became a museum in 1935.
Hagia Sophia is officially recognized by UNESCO as part of the Historic Areas of Istanbul that have been added to the UNESCO World Heritage List since 1985. Turkey is a member of the World Heritage Convention (1972) which it ratified back in 1983. According to Article 6, par. 3 of the Convention ‘‘each State Party to this Convention undertakes not to take any deliberate measures which might damage directly or indirectly the cultural and natural heritage referred to in Articles 1 and 2 situated on the territory of other States Parties to this Convention’’. The use of Hagia Sophia as a mosque entails danger for its cultural legacy while it changes the historical identity of this church and monument. There are already reports for considerable damages to the mosaics of the interior that has been caused over the years, as Hagia Sophia had been partly used on specific instances as a mosque.
The intention and the final decision to turn Hagia Sophia into a mosque was met with strong reactions by the Orthodox Church itself and the world community, especially the US, the EU, UNESCO, Greece and Russia.
Ecumenical Patriarch Bartholomew, the spiritual head of 300 million Orthodox Christians worldwide, had said that this decision would be ‘divisive’, it would ‘‘disappoint millions of Christians around the world’’ and would cause a serious ‘fracture’ between East and West. Just before the decision, US Secretary of State Michael Pompeo issued a statement saying that the US ‘‘views a change in the status of the Hagia Sophia as diminishing the legacy of this remarkable building and its unsurpassed ability—so rare in the modern world—to serve humanity as a much-needed bridge between those of differing faith traditions and cultures’’. After the decision the spokesperson of the US Department of State, Morgan Ortagus, noted in a statement that the US is ‘‘disappointed by the decision by the government of Turkey to change the status of the Hagia Sophia’’.
Josep Borrell, the EU’s foreign policy chief, expressing the official EU opinion, said that ‘‘President Erdogan’s decision to place the monument under the management of the Religious Affairs Presidency, is regrettable’’. The Greek PM Kyriakos Mitsotakis stated that ‘Greece categorically condemns Turkey’s decision to convert Hagia Sophia to a mosque’’ and that this decision is ‘‘an affront to its ecumenical character’’.
UNESCO’s reaction was rather ambivalent and insufficient to protect the history and the status of Hagia Sophia. In late June, according to Ernesto Ottone Ramírez, Assistant Director-General for Culture, UNESCO sent a letter to the Turkish authorities regarding Erdogan’s announcement to convert Hagia Sophia into a mosque. The letter emphasized some guiding principles, such as that the Convention on World Cultural Heritage stipulates that before any decision can be taken to change the status of a Cultural Heritage Monument, such as Hagia Sophia, a decision of the relevant UNESCO Intergovernmental Committee is required. After the signing of the decision, UNESCO issued another statement saying that it ‘‘deeply regrets the decision of the Turkish authorities, made without prior discussion, and calls for the universal value of World Heritage to be preserved’’.
Of course, Turkey’s decision was greeted enthusiastically among Islamists and extremist ideologues. Members of the Muslim Brotherhood were joyful over the prospect before the decision. In early July Egyptian Muslim Brotherhood leader and former MP Mohamed Al Sagheer wrote on Twitter that ‘‘prayers were performed for more than 400 years, and Mehmet the Conqueror had bought its land (Hagia Sophia) and its surroundings’’. He then went on to add: ‘‘Will Erdoğan revive the Conqueror’s methods and we hear Allahu akbar in the mosque again?’’. Another prominent Islamist writer, Qatari Faisal Al Thani went a step further by denying the Christian historical identity of Hagia Sophia, as he wrote: ‘‘Hagia Sophia ended its ties with the Church and since four centuries ago it was only a mosque’’. According to Al Thani who echoes the Turkish arguments ‘‘the decision to do so is a matter of sovereignty for the Turkish people. It will be joyful news that reinforces pride and identity. It will be considered a historic day and the beginning of a new phase. Its title is Turkey’s independence and a bright future’’.
The militant Palestinian Islamist group Hamas in the Gaza Strip expressed in eloquent terms its support for Ankara’s decision. According to an official written statement that was issued by Rafat Murra, head of international press office of Hamas, the Islamist organization ‘‘the opening of Hagia Sophia to prayer is a proud moment for all Muslims”. Hamas further added that the decisions falls solely under Turkey’s sovereignty rights and it demonstrates Turkey’s self-confidence, and its place in the international arena’’. Hamas, active on the borders of Egypt, is increasingly becoming a proxy for Turkish and Iranian influence.
Still, in the Islamic world Erdoğan’s decision was not fully supported and has met considerable reactions. The Egyptian based Global Fatwa Index, a cultural foundation that aims to counter terrorist fatwas issued all over the world, issued a statement in June 7. That statement explicitly mentioned that Hagia Sophia had served as a Christian church for 916 years, from its construction in the 6th century until 1453, when the Ottoman army conquered Constantinople and effectively turned the church of Hagia Sophia into a mosque. According to the statement of the Global Fatwa Index in essence ‘‘the Turkish regime is exploiting the issue of converting the Hagia Sophia to a mosque became an electoral weapon’’ for Erdoğan’s internal political ambitions. In Saudi Arabia the national Al Arabiya news network in a relevant analysis said that Turkish plans concerning Hagia Sophia actually ‘‘sow religious strife between the followers of the different faiths around the world’’.
Russia’s reaction carefully balanced between its desire to appear as a protector of Orthodox Christianity and its amicable relations with Turkey. The head of the Russian Church, Patriarch Kirill of Moscow, condemned the prospect of the conversion as a ‘‘threat to the whole of Christian civilisation’’. Still, Russian Presidential spokesperson had kept a different stance in a statement that the whole decision is ‘‘an internal affair of the Turkish Republic’’, rather than an international issue concerning respect of religious symbolisms and culture. Despite initial impressions, Russia has a lot to gain from the continuous undermining of the presence of the Ecumenical Patriarchate. The Turkish decision on Hagia Sophia promotes Russian pretensions of hegemony over the Orthodox realm, as it further weakens the position of the Orthodox Patriarchate of Constantinople. Russia, an offspring civilization of the Greek-influenced Byzantine culture, still cannot accept its secondary place in the realm of Orthodoxy, which it aims to completely control. Tension between the Patriarchate of Constantinople and Russia has been growing over the last years, especially after the Ecumenical Patriarchate granted the Ukrainian branch of the church independence from Russia despite Moscow’s fierce opposition.
Erdogan’s turning of Hagia Sophia into a mosque plays directly into Russian geostrategic aspirations in religious diplomacy; it reinforces the notion of Russia as the Third Rome (Constantinople being the Second Rome) and legitimate inheritor of the cultural and historical legacy of the Byzantine world and the image of Russia as a reliable protector of Orthodox populations in its periphery. Russia itself is a country Christianized by Byzantine influence in the 10th century. When Slavic emissaries from Kiev, then capital of the Russian state, were sent in the 11th century to the Byzantine capital, it was in the very church of Hagia Sophia that they were introduced to the splendid Byzantine liturgy: ‘‘We knew not whether we were on heaven or on Earth. For on Earth there is no such splendour or such beauty, and we are at loss on how to describe it. We know only that God dwells’ there among men’’ (Russian Primary Chronicle).
Russia and Turkey have been collaborating closely over the last years in a variety of issues, from the S-400 missile system to joint operations in Syria. Despite periodical frictions over distribution of influence zones, the two Eurasian countries are carefully extending their influence along the Middle East at the expense of Western and specifically US interests. Now, the decision to turn Hagia Sophia into a mosque allows Russia to extend its influence over the Orthodox realm and weakens the US image as a reliable guaranteeing force of religious coexistence. It is in this context and in the general framework of respect of historical religious monuments that US policy needs to rearticulate its policy and renew diplomatic pressure for the restitution of Hagia Sophia as a museum.
The decision to turn the historical Christian church of Hagia Sophia, the epicentre of Orthodox faith, into a mosque is a direct attack on the historical and cultural legacy of the Orthodox world. Turkey aims to resurrect the notion of an unofficial ideological caliphate, just a few years before it celebrates its 100 years of the Turkish Republic. The transformation of Turkey has been unfolding steadily ever since the Erdoğan regime assumed power. Now, Turkey plunges itself fully into the Ottoman past with such symbolical gestures and with its illegal intervention in Libya, the first land of the Ottoman Empire where the latter relinquished control back in 1911.
Culture matters greatly in international relations, used to promote foreign policy interests and aspirations. US and EU policy officials should take note of the greater context of Hagia Sophia’s classification as a mosque. The world needs to wake up to the dangerous revisionist entity that Turkey has become, an aggressor against regional stability and historical legacies. Reactions are of limited use unless accompanied by active diplomatic measures that safeguard the historical realities of religious pluralism and respect for the symbols of religions.
Dr. Ioannis E. Kotoulas (Ph.D. in Geopolitics, Ph.D. in History) is Adjunct Lecturer in Geopolitics at the University of Athens, Greece. His latest book is History and Geopolitics of Modern Greece (Athens 2019). His analyses have appeared in Foreign Affairs, Foreign Affairs Latinoamérica, Al-Ahram Weekly and academic journals.