Turkey’s Islamist president is threatening to convert one of the world’s most historic and iconic Christian churches into an Islamic mosque, in a move designed to appease Tayyip Erdogan’s political base and insult Christians.
The Council of State of Turkey is expected to rule this week on a request by Erdogan to convert the Hagia Sophia Museum into an Islamic mosque, and international observers are expecting that the court system will sign off on Erdogan’s initiative to turn the former church into a mosque.
The Hagia Sophia Church was constructed in Constantinople(today known as Istanbul) in A.D. 537 by Justinian, the then-Emperor of the Eastern Roman or Byzantine Empire. The church was a global symbol of the Byzantine civilization throughout the Middle Ages. It was converted into an Islamic mosque in the year 1453 when the Ottoman Empire captured Constantinople under the leadership of Mehmed II, a moment in history that Erdogan and his supporters point to as a moment of national pride.
When Turkey emerged from the declining Ottoman Empire shortly after World War I, the nation’s contemporary founder, Kemal Ataturk, arranged for the building to be placed into a use as a museum. The building, which is Turkey’s most visited tourist attraction to this day, has remained as such since 1935.
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The church remains a holy symbol to hundreds of millions of Orthodox Christians throughout the world today. Bartholomew I, the Christian bishop who holds the Byzantine title of “Patriarch of Constantinople” in Istanbul, warned of the consequences of such an inflammatory cultural act. “The potential conversion of Hagia Sophia into a mosque will turn millions of Christians around the world against Islam… What can I say as a Christian clergyman and the Greek patriarch in Istanbul? Instead of uniting, a 1,500-year-old heritage is dividing us. I am saddened and shaken.”
The 6th century building is not only noteworthy to two major world religions(originally Christianity), but is the most architecturally impressive building preserved from the early Middle Ages. Many of Constantinople’s most historic churches and buildings, such the Church of the Holy Apostles, were destroyed by the Ottoman conquerors in the decades following the 1453 Siege of Constantinople.
The Hagia Sophia church contains some of the most-well preserved medieval Byzantine images of Christ, Mary, various saints, and several Eastern Roman Emperors. As images of the human form are prohibited in Islam, some have questioned whether the artwork- which was uncovered from beneath a coating material when the building was phased from an Ottoman mosque into a museum- will be destroyed in the event it’s turned back into a mosque.
U.S. Secretary of State Michael Pompeo, the government of Greece(which views itself as the inheritor of the Byzantine Empire’s Greek-speaking legacy), and United Nations cultural institutions have spoken against the planned usurpation of the historic church. Pope Francis has been conspicuously silent, thus far.