Erdoğan’s Cultural Genocide Against Turkey’s Christian Heritage
Saturday, September 05, 2020
Jihad Watch : 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.
Google apparently hides the longer and more detailed videos
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
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
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
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
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
‘‘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
said that Turkish plans concerning Hagia Sophia actually ‘‘sow
religious strife between the followers of the different faiths around
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
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.