Turkey erases the Hagia Sophia’s Christian history

NICK EICHER, HOST: Coming up next on The World and Everything in It: a controversial conversion.

Turkey has been a beacon of hope for those who believe Islam and democracy can coexist. The founder Ataturk established the modern nation state back in 1935 and he went to great lengths to keep Islamists at bay. 

But in the past two decades, Turkey has changed course.

MEGAN BASHAM, HOST: Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan has ushered in a new era of nationalism and Islamic identity. And along with that have been attempts to extinguish the region’s rich Christian heritage and presence.

EICHER: Last week, Turkey’s highest court approved a proposal to convert Istanbul’s Hagia Sophia from a museum into a mosque. The 1500-year-old cathedral was the headquarters for the Bystantine Church for almost a millennium. WORLD’s Jill Nelson reports on this controversial move and why it’s not the only threat to Turkey’s Christian heritage.

AUDIO: [Byzantine orthodox chant]

JILL NELSON, REPORTER: Hagia Sophia was the most important church in the Christian world for more than 900 years. When Ottoman Turks invaded Constantinople in 1453, they turned it into a mosque, added its towering minarets, and covered Christian icons.

In 1935, Ankara decided to promote unity among faiths by converting Hagia Sophia into a museum. But current Turkish Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan says that was a mistake and made the issue part of his election platform.

AUDIO: [Celebrations]

On July 10th, Erdogan issued a decree declaring Hagia Sophia a mosque once again. A crowd cheered as the the ancient basilica broadcast the Muslim call to prayer.

Ankara claims tourists will still be able to visit the ancient cathedral. But Christians and historians fear the building’s history will be hidden.

Oguz Alhan is a Turkish Christian who studied Byzantine church history.

ALHAN: When you convert it to a mosque, you will get rid of a majority of it. You will cover the floors with carpet. You will cover all the pictures and all the historical sites and important parts that you would see in history.

Alhan says Hagia Sophia’s wealth of Christian frescoes would no longer be visible.

ALHAN: In Islam, especially in a worship place where you worship you would not have something that will be considered an idol, idolatry. So that’s why it has to be covered. In 1453, after the conquest of Istanbul, they covered all these icons, and mosaics and frescoes for that purpose.

It could also jeopardize the already fragile historic structure. Earthquakes have damaged the massive dome over the years, and many sections of the building need repair. Converting it to a mosque would require additions to the building—speakers, wiring, carpets, shoe racks and more, according to Alhan.

ALHAN: This is not a domestic issue in a sense. It is a world heritage. it’s an historical site that’s been standing for almost 1500 years. Instead of how we can damage more, we should be thinking about how we can preserve it and how we can strengthen it.

In June, U.S. Secretary of State Mike Pompeo encouraged Turkey not to change the museum’s status. And the spiritual head of the Eastern Orthodox Church said the conversion would only sow division. Ecumenical Patriarch Bartholomew leads the world’s 300 million Eastern Orthodox believers from his church’s headquarters in Istanbul.

BARTHOLOMEW: The conversion of Hagia Sophia to a mosque will disappoint millions of Christians around the world. And Hagia Sophia, which due to its sacredness, is a vital center where East is embraced with the West, will fracture these two worlds.

Greece, Russia, and Cyprus also issued statements condemning the move. Alhan says the conversion is motivated in part by Erdogan’s desire to boost his support among Islamists.

ALHAN: He’s been losing a lot of support from people. As you know, at the last local election he lost five big cities mayors.

Ali Kalkandelen is chairman of Turkey’s Protestant Churches Association. He’s concerned about Erdogan’s decree and the division it will cause. But he’s even more worried about Anakara’s recent efforts to expel Christian foreigners from the country… one more sign of the government’s war on the church. Christians comprised 18 percent of the population a century ago. Now they are less than 1 percent.

KALKANDELEN: We had one couple already left from our church, and we had another couple banned this week. So they were given 10 days to leave the church, to leave the country.

Kalkandelen says there’s been an uptick in deportations since 2018 when American pastor Andrew Brunson was freed from a Turkish prison. Many of the Protestant Christians recently targeted are married to Turkish citizens and involved in ministry. He counts more than 50 cases in the past two years. They have all been given the code N-82: threat to national security.

KALKANDELEN: They are all secret cases and files and nobody knows. You cannot go and ask about the details because they are all secret files. The only reason they are targeting is because they are important figures for the church in Turkey. And they don’t want the Turkish church to grow.

Kalkandelen asks the global church to pray for Christians in Turkey, that whatever hardship they encounter would lead to revival in the church that spreads to the country’s 82 million Turks. And he says now is the time for Orthodox, Catholic, and Protestant Christians to take action.

KALKANDELEN: I think what we need to do is when we see negative things over us, done against us, instead of just becoming passive and not doing anything I think we just need to send more workers. We have to we have to evangelize more, we need to pray more, so we just need to counterattack that way.

The first Muslim prayer service at Hagia Sophia is scheduled for July 24th.

Reporting for WORLD, I’m Jill Nelson.

(AP Photo/Emrah Gurel) A man waves a Turkish flag outside the Byzantine-era Hagia Sophia, one of Istanbul’s main tourist attractions in the historic Sultanahmet district of Istanbul, following Turkey’s Council of State’s decision, Friday, July 10, 2020.

WORLD Radio transcripts are created on a rush deadline. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Accuracy and availability may vary. The authoritative record of WORLD Radio programming is the audio record.

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