First Published: 2013-12-03

Possible conversion of Hagia Sophia to Islam rekindles religious tensions in Turkey
Historian says debate could be linked to Turkey's upcoming elections, with local polls in March, presidential ballot in August.
Middle East Online

By Dilay Gundogan, Emmanuelle Baillon ISTANBUL

Unknown future

Perched on the tip of Istanbul's historic peninsula, Hagia Sophia -- with its spectacular dome, elegant curves and towering minarets -- is an iconic sight for millions of tourists visiting the city each year.

But should it be a mosque, a church or a museum?

The 1,500-year-old complex overlooking the Bosphorus is at the heart of a bitter dispute over its fate after Turkey's Deputy Prime Minister Bulent Arinc called for it to be converted back into a Muslim place of worship.

His comments, though not official policy, have added to concerns over what critics say is the government's increasing efforts to impose Islamic values on secular Turkish society.

And the Byzantine monument could become a political hot potato for Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan, who is seeking to shore up flagging support among conservative Muslims ahead of elections next year.

Hagia Sophia, which in Greek means "Holy Wisdom", was built in the sixth century and served as an Orthodox church for centuries -- and as the seat of the Patriarchate of Constantinople -- before being converted to a mosque by the Ottomans in the 1400s.

Mustafa Kemal Ataturk, the founder of the modern Turkish republic, declared it a museum in 1934 and it opened the following year.

"We are looking at a sad Hagia Sophia, but hopefully we will see it smiling again soon," Arinc said earlier this month.

Greece, whose territory was once part of the Ottoman Empire and is often at odds with Turkey over religious issues, reacted furiously, saying such comments offended the religious feelings of millions of Christians.

Mihail Vasiliadis, editor-in-chief of Istanbul-based Greek daily Apoyevmatini, says Hagia Sophia is an important symbol for the entire Orthodox Christian community.

"There are some who have been seeing a sad Hagia Sophia for more than 500 years and they are the ones who want to see it returned as a church," he said.

Istanbul's tiny Greek community, which numbers just a few thousand, is already irked over the issue of Ankara's insistence on reciprocal steps from Athens to improve their religious rights.

"There is no need to add salt to the wound," Vasiliadis said.

Last month, Greece flatly rejected the idea of reviving two mosques in Athens in return for the reopening of an Orthodox clergy school in Turkey.

Two other churches that also bear the name Hagia Sophia have recently been turned into mosques in Turkey.

There are already an estimated 83,000 mosques across the country -- up around seven percent since Erdogan took office 11 years ago.

Istanbul itself has around 3,000, including the stunning 17th century Blue Mosque just a short distance from Hagia Sophia.

For devout Muslims, however, opening Hagia Sophia for worship is also about paying a homage to Fatih Sultan Mehmet, the Ottoman emperor who turned it into a mosque following the conquest of Constantinople and joined the first prayers in 1453.

The nationalist Islamist Great Union Party (BBP) has staged several demonstrations to seek a repeal of the ban on Muslim prayers in Hagia Sophia, part of a UNESCO World Heritage site encompassing the Byzantine and Ottoman treasures of old Istanbul.

Armed with a land registry certificate dated 1936 that describes the complex as a mosque, BBP deputy leader Bayram Karacan claimed that its conversion into a museum was illegal.

"The fact that Hagia Sophia is a museum has never been accepted by the Turkish people... restoring it as a mosque would be akin to reclaiming sovereignty over it," Karacan said.

Outside Hagia Sophia, visitors and local residents were divided over the possible conversion of the monument, described by UNESCO as one of the historic quarter's "unique architectural masterpieces".

"We have plenty of mosques here and many of them are empty. Who will fill all these mosques if it is converted? Tourists will not come here anymore," said 52-year-old shopowner Fehmi Simsek.

Emerging from Hagia Sophia, 23-year-old German tourist Tamara said the complex was a testament to Istanbul's historical and religious importance throughout the centuries.

"Why would you want to change such a remarkable building?"

Historian Ahmet Kuyas of Galatasaray University in Istanbul said the debate could be linked to Turkey's upcoming elections, with local polls in March, a presidential ballot in August and parliamentary elections in 2015.

Erdogan, nicknamed the "Sultan", has frequently touched a nerve over his conservative religious policies, including crackdowns on the sale and advertising of alcohol and allowing women working in the public service to wear Islamic headscarves.

"Turning Hagia Sophia into a mosque would be another blow to secular Turkey," Kuyas said, describing the site as "a symbol of universal peace, peace between nations, between religions".

Sevda, a veiled Turkish woman, said it would be more accessible to all as a mosque, as currently there was a fee to enter the museum.

"It belongs to us and therefore it should be a mosque," added her companion Kubra.

A visitor from Spain who gave his name only as Alex said he did not object to a change in the status as long as people could still visit.

"It is a beautiful place that everyone should see," he added.


Abbas calls US ambassador to Israel 'son of a dog'

Saudi crown prince keen to cement ties with US

Pro-Turkish forces loot Afrin

Morocco authorities vow to close Jerada's abandoned mines

Iraqis flock to flea market for relics of bygone era

Human rights chief slams Security Council for inaction on Syria

US warns Turkey over civilians caught in Syria assault

Erdogan vows to expand Syria op to other Kurdish-held areas

Kurdish envoy accuses foreign powers of ignoring Turkish war crimes

Israeli soldier sees manslaughter sentence slashed

Turkey insists no plans to remain in Afrin

Cairo voters show unwavering support for native son Sisi

Forum in Jordan explores new teaching techniques

Gaza Strip woes receive renewed attention but no fix is expected

Kurds, Syrian opposition condemn Afrin looting

36 jihadists killed in Egypt’s Sinai

Israel arrests French consulate worker for gun smuggling

Israel prepares to demolish Jerusalem attacker's home

Saudi crown prince says his country to seek nuclear bomb if Iran does

Arab women artists in diaspora focus on identity and loss

Tunisia’s Central Bank targets inflation but may hurt growth prospects

Libya’s health system reflects a larger humanitarian crisis

Israel blasts Gaza underground tunnel

Abu Dhabi awards France's Total stakes in oil concessions

Erdogan says Afrin city centre under ‘total’ control

Egypt tries to contain Sudan but challenges, suspicions remain

US defence secretary presses Oman on Iran weapons smuggling

Syrian regime retakes two towns from Ghouta rebels

Hamas shutters mobile firm after Gaza attack on PM

Israel punishes family members of West Bank attacker

Syria opposition says UN 'failed to prevent' Assad 'crimes'

UK tries to soothe Egyptian anger over mob attack death

Hundreds of thousands flee in dual Syria assaults

Turkish Cypriots vow to stand firm in gas dispute

Intensifying assaults in Syria spark dual evacuations

Tearful reunions, uncertain fates for Syrians fleeing Ghouta

Iran deal signatories meet as Trump deadline looms

Thirty years on, Kurds remember Halabja massacre

Air India says will fly over Saudi airspace to Tel Aviv

UN chief calls for end to Lebanese 'meddling' in Syria

Turkey seeks jail for journalists opposing government

UN says civilians trapped, used as 'human shields' in Afrin

Iran, Russia, Turkey hold Syria talks in Astana

Civilians killed in Turkish fire on Syria's Afrin

US Defense Secretary says Iran 'mucking around' in Iraq elections