On Friday Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan announced that for the first time in nearly a century the historic Hagia Sophia church would be reopened as a mosque, sparking fury and outrage from Greece, Russia, and other East European predominantly Orthodox Christian countries.
Earlier this week as multiple countries and Christian religious leaders lodged formal protest over the plans, the head of the Russian Orthodox Church, Patriarch Kirill warned that “A threat to Hagia Sophia is a threat to the entire Christian civilization.”
Considered an architectural marvel and the top tourist attraction in Turkey, the 6th century building constructed under Byzantine emperor Justinian has been a museum ever since a 1934 presidential decree, which a Turkish court annulled Friday. But it remains the symbolic heart for half the Christian world, namely the Eastern Orthodox Church.
According to the WSJ:
In a ruling issued Friday via the official Anadolu news agency, the Council of State, the country’s highest administrative court, canceled a decades-old decision under which Hagia Sophia—originally a Byzantine cathedral then an Ottoman mosque—was transformed into a museum.
Friday’s ruling effectively returned the building to a place of Islamic worship, Turkish law experts said, the status it had after the Ottomans conquered Constantinople, as Istanbul was previously known, in the mid-15th century.
The move is broadly seen as part of Erdogan's continuing program of reversing secularization in politics and the public sphere in favor of a more conservative Islamic face to modern Turkey.
The WSJ underscores that "By returning Hagia Sophia to a home for Muslim prayer, Mr. Erdogan moved closer to fulfilling his longtime pledge of making more room for Islam inside the secular republic, and showed that he still has control over the destiny of Istanbul, even after his ruling party suffered a stinging defeat in last year’s local elections."
Greece slammed the move as an "open provocation to the civilized world" while Orthodox Church leaders decried it as an open attack on the world's 300 million Orthodox adherents. "The nationalism displayed by Erdogan... takes his country back six centuries," Greece's Culture Minister Lina Mendoni said on Friday.
I strongly denounce #Turkey’s decision to convert Hagia Sophia into a mosque. I urge Erdogan to reverse course and restore Hagia Sophia’s remarkable legacy as a museum for people of all faiths and cultures to visit. https://t.co/AUfDgGP9f4— Senator Bob Menendez (@SenatorMenendez) July 10, 2020
Erdogan however, has interpreted it more simply as a matter of "asserting Turkey's sovereignty" over the site. Turkey argues that it can legally do what it wants with monuments and historic places within its sovereign territory.
Mike Pompeo has even weighed in on the side of the Greek government, urging that it be kept as a museum. “We urge the government of Turkey to continue to maintain the Hagia Sophia as a museum, as an exemplar of its commitment to respect Turkey’s diverse faith traditions and history, and to ensure it remains accessible to all,” the US Secretary of State said within the last weeks.
It's but one more symbolic provocation, albeit a serious one further worsening Greece-Turkey relations, and risking Moscow's wrath as well.
#HagiaSophia was a Greek Orthodox church before becoming an Ottoman mosque. It was converted into a museum in 1934 by Turkey's first president Mustafa Kemal Ataturk.— DW News (@dwnews) July 10, 2020
A video we published before the ruling: pic.twitter.com/pslc7Abi9x
Meanwhile, Ecumenical Patriarch Bartholomew of Constantinople - who represents the Orthodox Church and its some 300 million adherents worldwide, is still in residence in Istanbul. He and his predecessors have been barred from using Hagia Sophia as a place of prayer since the 15th century, though over the years there's been a few provocative instances where Greek clergy were said to have stealthily entered the now museum to "illegally" conduct Christian worship.
Recent protests by Turkish Islamist groups outside Hagia Sophia have witnessed people chanting: "Let the chains break and open Hagia Sophia" for Muslim prayers, and now Erdogan is making good on that demand.