(Source: Christophe Lafontaine, Aid to the Church in Need International)

On 10 July, in a speech to the nation, President Erdoğan announced that the ancient Basilica of Hagia Sophia, a UNESCO World Heritage site, would be reopened for Muslim worship on 24 July. In his address, he stressed that Turkey had the “sovereign right” to convert the monumental complex into a mosque.

Turkey’s Council of State, which had been asked to rule on Erdoğan’s request, overturned a decree issued on 24 November 1934 by then president, Mustafa Kemal (Atatürk), who had ordered that Hagia Sophia be turned into a museum. In 1453, after Constantinople’s fall to the Ottomans, the basilica had been turned into a mosque.

Aid to the Church in Need (ACN) once more spoke with Étienne Copeaux, a historian specialising in modern-day Turkey, to get his thoughts about this decision. A former resident researcher at the French Institute of Anatolian Studies (l’Institut français d’études anatoliennes) in Istanbul, and a former researcher at the National Scientific Research Centre (Centre national de la recherche scientifique) in Paris, he runs the Susam-Sosak blog, focused on Turkey. The interview was conducted by Christophe Lafontaine.

In your view, by turning the ancient Christian Basilica of Hagia Sophia into a mosque, after it became a museum in 1934, is Erdoğan completing a long-term process?

The process dates back to the Conquest of Constantinople (1453), known as “Fetih”, a term which literally means “openness to Islam”. The victor, Sultan Mehmet II, is called “Fatih”, “the one who achieved a gain in Islam”.

To “act out” the capture of the City and the fall of the Byzantine Empire, Mehmet II went to pray inside Hagia Sophia (Turkish: Ayasofya). That was a very important gesture. As a result of this, Hagia Sophia became a mosque for almost five centuries.

Ayasofya is also mentioned in Muhammad’s sayings (hadith). One hadith lionises whomever took Constantinople, and the Turks indeed boast of doing what the Arabs failed to do.

What is more, a legend attributes a prophecy to Muhammad, which is important to know in order to understand the importance of Hagia Sophia in the eyes of Muslim Turks. The dome of the basilica collapsed during an earthquake in 558, according to the legend, cited by Stéphane Yerasimos in his seminal work*, on the same night of Muhammad’s birthday.

Muhammad then visited the Byzantine emperor in a dream and authorised him to rebuild the basilica “because […] his believers would one day pray there”. Under the Ottoman Empire, the building was so holy that Muslims would try to spend the ‘Night of destiny’ inside Hagia Sophia to mark the sacred time in the month of Ramadan when Muslims celebrate the Qurʼān’s revelation to Muhammad.

Was Atatürk’s desacralisation of the mosque in 1934 a breaking point for Turkish Muslims?

Since Hagia Sophia holds a special place in the hearts and faith of Turkish Muslims, one can understand how scandalous for them was the desacralisation of the mosque and its conversion into a museum by Atatürk.

This act has become the symbol of Turkish secularism. But this must be seen in context: by this time, Turkey had eliminated most non-Muslims by genocide, mass expulsions and pogroms. And the process of ethnic cleansing did not stop: in 1955, 1964, 1974 .

The desacralisation provoked internal anger among Muslims, which caused a reaction, which came to light on the fifth centenary of the Fetih, the Conquest of Constantinople, in 1953. Right-wing parties, both nationalist and religious, organised regular protests in front of Hagia Sophia to demand its return to Muslim worship.

Since then, the demand has never stopped. During the “conquering” of the city hall of Istanbul in 1994, which was also called “fetih”, Erdoğan became mayor of the city. Furthermore, during the victory in the legislative elections of 1995 by the Islamist party, Refah, of which Erdoğan was a member, voters were promised the return of Aya Sofya to Islam. Now the job is done.

How much does the decision have to do with Erdoğan’s personality?

Certainly, Erdoğan’s “mark” counts. It took some nerve, if I may say; no one before him had dared to go so far.

It must be noted, however, that at present Erdoğan did not “act out” the return from a position of strength and popular support. He’s in trouble. Islamists lost control of the Istanbul Municipality; the economic situation is disastrous.

Erdoğan has been criticised from many quarters, and has failed to silence them through repression. By this act, he is obviously hoping to firmly rally the religious right around him.

Turkey’s openly anti-Western military operations, despite the country’s membership of NATO, offer a favourable context. Hagia Sophia’s return to Islam is like the “icing on the cake”.

Are the rising tensions caused by Erdoğan’s decision primarily religious or political?

I think we should put things into perspective. Ayasofya was a mosque for five centuries. It is imbued with great sacredness, for both Christians and Muslims.

If people can continue to visit it respectfully like any Turkish mosque, if the Byzantine mosaics are respected, why be so offended?

In my opinion, the problem is political, not religious, since the Qurʼān and many Islamic religious texts revere Jesus/Isa and Mary/Maryam.

Erdoğan acted for the sake of Turkish nationalism, not the Muslim faith. Ayasofya is a nationalist question and matter; that is the problem.

The return serves no purpose from a cultural point of view since Istanbulites have far more mosques than they need, many of them huge and magnificent.

What message is Erdoğan sending to Turkey’s religious minorities, and more specifically to Christians, for this is not the first time in recent years that churches have been turned into a mosque?

On a religious level, Turkey’s main “message” to the world in the 20th century was the total destruction of a multi-ethnic and multi-religious society by means of extreme violence. All the massacres and expulsions were carried out on purely religious grounds as part of a nationalist agenda.

Cyprus is the latest example. The northern part of the island is a real laboratory for this process: when Turkey invaded in 1974, all Orthodox Christians were expelled by the Turkish military, within an hour; not because they spoke Greek but because they were Orthodox.

Such actions are Ottoman in orientation with people institutionally divided into distinct religious communities. The paradox is that, despite problems and massacres, the Empire remained multi-religious.

It is the supposedly secular republic that made Turkey 99% Muslim. In this respect I usually say that the Armenian genocide, although perpetrated a few years before the founding of the republic, was in fact its foundational moment.

For many people Hagia Sophia’s universal cultural and religious vocation is being trampled upon. Should this be seen as an attack on religious freedom in Turkey?

As I said, “religious freedom” in Turkey has been destroyed by violence. Turkish nationalism is based on the notion that “the Turkish nation is Muslim”, and that one is not truly Turkish if one is not a Muslim.

This view is echoed by the ‘other side’. I have often heard Jews and Orthodox Christians, Turkish citizens, say to me, “I am not Turkish”. This is a basic problem: for nationalist Turkey, non-Muslims are foreigners.

Nationalism is THE real problem of this country. It sometimes comes across as clearly black and white. For example, on several occasions, geographic commissions have replaced place names of Greek, Armenian or other origin, deemed “foreign”.

Armenians, Orthodox Christians, and Jews are foreigners in their own country, even though they have lived here for far longer than the Turks!

In such a context, religious freedom formally exists, on paper, but there is a lot of intimidation: graves and cemeteries vandalised in Cyprus, and even Istanbul, not to mention murders. Non-Muslims have been forced to take a low profile, an attitude encouraged by priests in their sermons, as I personally witnessed at an Easter Mass in Istanbul.

Do you believe in a shock wave in the eastern and the western worlds?

Why so much fuss over Hagia Sophia, since Turkish nationalists have always done whatever they wanted to non-Muslims, without any protest from the West?

The terrible pogrom against Orthodox Christians in Istanbul in September 1955 is a case in point; this was followed by the expulsion of 100,000 ethnic Greeks from the city, Turkish citizens forced to leave for Greece, a country they didn’t know, descendants of the city’s original population, driven out with ‘twenty dollars and twenty kilos of luggage’, since everything else was taken from them.

Any ‘shock wave’ should have been activated not by religion, but by a simple sense of humanity. Aren’t these facts – I’m not even talking about the Armenian genocide – more important than the return of Hagia Sophia to Islam?

* Stéphane Yerasimos, La fondation de Constantinople et de Sainte-Sophie dans les traditions turques (The foundation of Constantinople and Hagia Sophia in Turkish traditions), Istanbul/Paris: IFEA et Jean Maisonneuve, 1990.

More on Novena on the debate over Hagia Sophia:

Explainer: Why does Hagia Sophia still stir such strong passions after 1,500 years?

Watch: Hagia Sophia hosts Muslim prayers for first time in 86 years

Greek president lobbies Pope to pressure Turkey to backtrack on Hagia Sophia

Jesuit Islam expert: “Hypocritical” to say ‘Christianity has lost a church’ with Hagia Sophia mosque reconversion

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PhD in ancient Jewish/Christian history and philosophy. Lecturer in ethics at Loyola University Maryland, Alcalá de Henares (Spain) campus. Religion journalist with 4 years experience.