Voices from Russia

Tuesday, 17 December 2013

Hagia Sophia: A Wonder of the World is in Middle of Religious Controversy

00 Hagia Sophia Cathedral of the Holy Wisdom. 17.12.13

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Editor’s Note:

Yes, I know that Soros finances EurasiaNet, which means that it’s pro-corporatist and pro-Western. However, the lamestream media  (both “progressive” and “conservative”) isn’t covering this, and it’s of interest to Orthodox Christians. As you read it, do consider the source… and who pays for it.

BMD

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Turkish Deputy Prime Minister Bülent Arınç’s call to turn Istanbul’s Hagia Sophia from a museum back into a mosque is stoking a dispute between Turkey’s Islamist-rooted government and Orthodox Christians in Turkey. Metropolitan Genadios Lymouris of Sasima, a senior official in the Ecumenical Patriarchate of Constantinople New Rome, one of the autocephalous Eastern Orthodox Churches, warned, “We do hope that the Turkish government will reconsider and have to think very seriously”.

For over 900 years, Hagia Sophia (“Holy Wisdom” in Greek), built in 537, was Christendom’s most important church, but when Constantinople (as Istanbul was then called) fell to the Ottomans in 1453, it became a mosque, and for nearly 500 years, it ranked among the Ottoman Empire’s grandest places of worship. In 1935, the founders of Turkey’s secular republic transformed Hagia Sophia into a museum. The iconic building continues to carry important political significance. İştar Gözaydin, a professor of law and politics at Doğuş University, an expert on the relationship between the state and religion, noted, “The Islamists always aspired for it to be a mosque”, whilst Turkish secularists want it to remain “a neutral place”, and Christians see it as a church,.

Until Turkey’s governing Justice and Development Party (AKP) came to power in 2003, the chances of Hagia Sophia reverting to a mosque were slim to none. However, with the country’s Islamic heritage now experiencing revival after decades of government-imposed secularism, the prospect isn’t entirely unlikely. On a 16 November trip to Hagia Sophia, Arınç, who oversees policy toward historical buildings that once belonged to religious minorities, declared to television reporters, “The days of a mosque being a museum are over”. With Turkey heading into an 18-month election-cycle in 2014, most believe that politics motivated Arınc’s statements. In campaign speeches for next March’s municipal elections, Turkish Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdoğan draws heavily on the country’s Ottoman past. He aims the message at both religious and nationalist voters, key AKP constituencies. The strategy could well prove a vote-winner. Recently, one teenager leaving Hagia Sophia said, “God willing, it’ll be a mosque. Fatih Sultan Mehmet wanted this. When he conquered Istanbul, the first thing he did was to convert it into a mosque. That’s why it should be a mosque again”.

Arınç has the reputation of a political maverick, a man prone to making incendiary statements that the government doesn’t always followed up. Nevertheless, the fact that Arınç has links to the mosque-makeover of two other church-museums also named Hagia Sophia (in İznik and Trabzon) means that even the mention of a similar fate for Istanbul’s Hagia Sophia sparked alarm among the Ecumenical Patriarchate in Istanbul. Metropolitan Genadios, referring to Arınc’s comments, said, “We’re surprised, but not surprised, with this statement. I don’t want to believe our Turkish authorities said this in a concrete way or that they realised the consequences of this decision to open Hagia Sophia as a place of worship [for Muslims]. Hagia Sophia, for Christians and Orthodox… it represents, for us, a monument of Christianity”. The Orthodox Church has powerful international allies, and a visit to Ecumenical Patriarch Bartholomew Archontonis often features on the itineraries of visiting foreign leaders and ministers.

In the coming months and years, some observers believe the status of Hagia Sophia would become part of a wider controversy between Greece and Turkey over religious freedom. Increasingly, the Turkish government challenges Athens over what it sees as restrictions put on the religious practises of Greece’s tiny Turkish minority, believed to make up most of the country’s miniscule Muslim minority of roughly 100,000 people. Ankara retaliated by refusing to reopen Halki, a Greek Orthodox seminary near Istanbul, which many expected to reopen as part of a broad democratisation package announced in October. Greece, which sees Byzantium (sic) as part of its cultural heritage, declared last month that statements “about converting Byzantine (sic) Christian churches into mosques offend the religious feelings of millions of Christians”. Officials in Ankara scoff at such statements as hypocritical. Turkish Ministry of Foreign Affairs spokesman Levent Gümrükçü said, “Athens is in no position to question us, considering Athens is the only capital in Europe that doesn’t have a mosque, even though there are many Muslims there”. Amidst diplomatic rancour and Turkey’s own charged political atmosphere, Hagia Sophia’s fate is far from clear. Metropolitan Genadios sighed, “We now live in unpredictable times”.

5 December 2013

Dorian Jones

EurasiaNet

http://www.eurasianet.org/node/67836

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