As the coronavirus pandemic rages across the world, political faultlines are getting wider, one such development was seen in Turkey after President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan gave his assent to reopen the iconic Hagia Sophia as a mosque, stripping its Byzantine museum status. Following the order, the 1,500-year-old monument from the Byzantine Empire will be opened as a mosque from July 24 onwards.
A symbol of Christian-Muslim coexistence for centuries, the decision raises questions on the changing nature of politics in the region.
The symbolism of Hagia Sophia
Hagia Sophia — Ayasofya in Turkish — is a 6th-century structure constructed by Justinian-I in 537 at Constantinople (now Istanbul). It was also known as the Church of Holy Wisdom or the Church of Wisdom Divine. After being broken and rebuilt multiple times, it was rebuilt in the mid-14th century and restructured as a mosque in 1453 after the Turkish conquest of Constantinople by Sultan Mehmed-II of the Ottoman Empire.
In 1934, it was converted to a museum by Turkish President and founder of the Republic of Turkey, Mustafa Kemal Ataturk to secularize the identity of Turkey. Historians consider the building to be an important source of information and knowledge about the state of mosaic art in the time, followed by the end of Iconoclastic controversy in the 8th and 9th centuries.
The iconoclastic controversy was the dispute over the use of religious images and icons in the Byzantine Empire in the 8th and 9th centuries. In 1985, Hagia Sophia was designated as a part of UNESCO’s World Heritage Site called Historic Areas of Istanbul, which includes other important historic buildings and locations of Istanbul.
What has happened recently?
The Turkish court annulled the museum status of the building and ruled that it will only be used as a mosque and any other usage will be deemed illegal. The demand was long being made by Islamists, however, was deferred by strong Secular opposition. In a televised address to the nation, Erdogan said that the country has used its sovereign right. He also said that the mosque will be open for all Muslims, non-Muslims and other foreign tourists.
An outpour of global reaction
While the Islamists have seen the decision as a victory, the Christians of the country are silent on the move. According to experts, they do not want to get involved in such politics. The World Council of Churches has called for a reversal of the decision. And the Church in Russia, which is home to the world’s largest orthodox Christian community, has regretted the decision.
“The concern of millions of Christians has not been heard. The court ruling shows that all calls for the need for extreme delicacy in this matter were ignored,” stated the church.
The Pope has also shown deep regret over the decision. He said, “My thoughts go to Istanbul. I think of Santa Sophia and I am very pained.” The World Heritage Committee has said that they will review the monument’s Heritage status now as there was no discussion held before the decision.
The changing dynamics of Turkish politics
Amid a falling economy, growing coronavirus cases, and poor foreign policy record, Erdogan’s decision is being seen as one to please the local population which defeated his AK Party in recently held city elections. Many see this move as an imposition of Erdogan’s Islamist ideas, which is a threat to the democratic and secular structure of the country.
While most chose to remain silent on the issue, Nobel Prize-winning author Orhan Pamuk has shown deep regret.
“There are millions of secular Turks like me who are crying against this but their voices are not heard. To convert it back to a mosque is to say to the rest of the world unfortunately we are not secular anymore,” said Pamuk.
In April, German think-tank Bertelsmann Stiftung called Erdogan’s rule as “dictatorship” and “authoritarian.” The President has been consolidating power ever since the failed coup attempt of 2016. While coming down hard on press and other rebels, for Erdogan, it is more about his political branding, a mixture of nationalism and religion to appeal to his base, which is losing interest in his policies.