After their first face-to-face meeting in months, Turkey and 27 EU foreign ministers clashed over Ankara’s decision to change the status of Hagia Sophia from a museum to a mosque and continued energy excavation in the disputed Mediterranean waters.
“We condemn the Turkish decision to convert such an emblematic monument as the Hagia Sophia,” said Josep Borrell EU foreign affairs chief. He contended: “This decision will inevitably fuel mistrust, promote renewed division between religious communities and undermine our efforts at dialogue and cooperation,” after the conference of EU foreign ministers. There was “broad support to call on the Turkish authorities to urgently consider and reverse this decision” he added.
The EU was “faced with a challenge and insult” meted out by Erdogan said Greek government spokesman Stelios Petsas on Monday.
“Hagia Sophia was left as a legacy as a mosque and must be used as a mosque,” told Turkish Foreign Minister Mevlut Cavusoglu to state broadcaster TRT in reply. “We strongly reject comments that amount to intervention in Turkey’s sovereign rights” thereby rejecting international intervention concerning the country’s decision to convert Hagia Sophia back into a mosque.
Ankara’s disputes with Greece and Cyprus over energy exploration in the eastern Mediterranean region were also discussed when Borell visited Turkey last week. Cyprus insists it has exclusive rights over an area where Turkey has dispatched warship-escorted vessels to drill for gas. The Turkish government contends “it’s acting to protect its interests in the area’s natural resources and those of Turkish Cypriots.”
Pestas asserted that “Turkish drilling was blatantly contrary to international obligations and international law” and added that “Greece would be looking to prepare a list for possible political, diplomatic and financial sanctions”.
Cavusoglu remained fixated to his stance- “If Greece were to turn away from its maximalist ways and agree to a fair sharing (of rights), and if it were to convince Cyprus to a fair sharing of revenues (from the exploration of natural resources), then 80% of our problems would be solved,” he said.
“There were no immediate decisions at Monday’s meeting, but the ministers would revisit the issue at their next meeting in Berlin in August” commented Borrell. However, even as the rift between both sides deepened, the 27 EU ministers were unable to get too close because of social distancing rules.
Making Hagia Sophia a mosque again: The death of secularism
Emperor Justinian built the Hagia Sophia in 537 AD. The monument was considered the largest and grandest church in all of Christendom and till date, remains the spiritual heart of Christian orthodoxy. In 1453, the church was converted into a mosque when Istanbul was conquered by the Ottomans. However, in its shadow thrived numerous, prominent Greek and Christian communities in what is now Turkey.
In the bloody chaos that followed the Ottoman Empire’s collapse, many of those communities disappeared. At the same time, the new Turkish republic sought to move beyond its Ottoman cultural moorings. A 1934 decree by Turkey’s secularist founder, Mustafa Kemal Ataturk, made Hagia Sophia a museum that commemorated the depth of its history, which predates the advent of Islam. It became a monument that transcended religion and underscored Istanbul at the heart of different cultures and faiths. In the past decade, less famous former churches in other parts of Turkey — some also named Hagia Sophia — have resumed services as mosques. However, Erdogan and his allies still shied away from claiming their greatest prize.
A Turkish court ruled on July 10th that Istanbul’s famous Hagia Sophia can be converted from a museum back into a mosque once again, overruling the 1934 decree. (as reported by Reuters)
On Friday, when the Turkish president announced that Hagia Sophia would be a mosque again, with Muslim prayers resuming in the compound in two weeks. Turkish officials said the site would remain open to all and that its Christian icons and mosaics would not be damaged.
A global backlash was nevertheless seen. “The World Council of Churches” requested President Erdogan to think over the decision. Russia’s Patriarch Kirill branded the move a “threat to the whole of Christian civilization.” UNESCO, the United Nations’ cultural agency, released a statement warning Turkish authorities against “taking any decision that might impact the universal value of the site.” Governments from neighbouring Greece to the Trump administration to the Kremlin issued notes of concern and protest.
Speaking at a service in the Vatican, the leader of Roman Catholic Pope Francis said he is “pained” by Turkey’s decision to convert Istanbul’s Hagia Sophia back into a mosque “My thoughts go to Istanbul. I think of Santa Sophia, and I am very pained.” The Pope limited himself to a few words concerning the issue
Some critics lamented what they perceived as a blow to Turkish secularism. “To convert it back to a mosque is to say to the rest of the world, unfortunately, we are not secular anymore,” Orhan Pamuk, Nobel Prize-winning novelist, spoke to BBC “There are millions of secular Turks like me who are crying against this, but their voices are not heard.”
Political rivals emphasized on the timing of the act. As Erdogan reckons with a declining economy further ravaged by the COVID 19 outbreak “This is a world legacy, a magnificent work,” stated Ekrem Imamoglumayor of Istanbul and a member of Turkey’s largest opposition party in an interview last month. “What is the need to open this debate now, when 97 per cent of tourism has frozen, while hotels are closed, while tourism has plummeted and hundreds of thousands of people have become unemployed?”
Hagia Sophia is not the first historic religious site to fall prey to modern politics. India too bears the scars of the 1992 religious riots that followed a mob’s demolition of a 16th-century mosque that some Hindus believed was built atop the birthplace of a major deity. The conflict over the site has been weaponized by the country’s current Hindu nationalist rulers.
Turkish commentators disperse light on what happened to numerous medieval mosques in Spain and Greece as a precedent; many of these structures, namely: The Great Mosque of Cordoba, were converted into churches and now lie in disrepair. But for Erdogan, the decision is not about comparative histories but Turkish voters. Changing Hagia Sophia’s status appears to be a move to appeal to the conservative voter base and assert his political brand.
“As a museum, the Hagia Sophia symbolized the idea of there being common artistic and cultural values that transcended religion to unite humanity,” Turkey scholar Nicholas Danforth told Al-Monitor. “Its conversion into a mosque is an all too appropriate symbol for the rise of right-wing nationalism and religious chauvinism around the world today.”
The Turkish Christians: A saga of unheard voices
Turkey’s Christian population, meanwhile, is a bystander to a debate that ignores the challenges facing a shrunken community. “It is not about us, neither the agendas to convert it to a mosque nor loud reactions against it in Turkey or abroad,” Ziya Meral, director of the Centre for Historical Analysis and Conflict Research in Britain and a Turkish Christian, told Today’s WorldView. “If it was, the focus would have been on how we can protect the future of some 100,000 or so Christians left in the country, and the tragedy we mourn would have been why so many of our churches are empty and why in a few decades Anatolia’s rich Christian heritage will not have much by way of living cultures and communities.”