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Turkey’s Long Tradition of Church Desecration

The conversion of Hagia Sophia into a mosque is the latest in a series of abuses and part of a seeming Ottoman resurgence.
President of Turkey Recep Tayyip Erdogan

The world’s once greatest cathedral is now a mosque. On July 10, Turkey’s President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan ordered the conversion of the nearly 1,500-year-old Hagia Sophia back into a mosque after a court annulled a 1934 presidential decree that made it a museum.

Erdoğan then joined thousands of Muslims for prayers inside the former Hagia Sophia Cathedral on July 24 for the first time after the historic building operated as a museum for more than eight decades. Turkey’s top religious authority, the Directorate of Religious Affairs (Diyanet), appointed imams and muezzins to lead the prayers. 

Two green Ottoman flags have been placed inside Hagia Sophia. The flag represents Ottoman military conquests and the three white crescents on it symbolize the Ottoman occupation of Europe, Asia, and Africa. 

The head of the Diyanet, Professor Ali Erbaş, recited a sermon with a sword in his hand. Referring to Ottoman Sultan Mehmed Mohammed II, who invaded Constantinople in the fifteenth century, as the “conqueror”, Erbaş said: “Conqueror Sultan Mehmed Khan endowed this place [to the Hagia Sophia Foundation] so that it would remain a mosque until the Judgement Day. Those who violate what was endowed are cursed.” 

Holding a sword in his own hand at Hagia Sophia, historian Mustafa Armağan explained what it meant:

In Ottoman practice and in the Islamic practice, the greatest mosque [church] of a conquered city was turned into a mosque of conquest. Hagia Sophia’s name is not [officially] the Mosque of Conquest but it is recognized as such. When the greatest church here was converted into a mosque, it became the Mosque of the Conquest. 

As this place was conquered with swords, the imam and khatib held swords in their hands as they went up to the pulpit. For [the sword] is the symbol of the conquest. It means, “We conquered this place via the sword and Islam dominates this place now as a right of the sword.” In the past, there was this practice in the great mosques of all conquered cities but it was forgotten in time. Some used a baton; others completely removed [the practice]. Hence, our Ottoman tradition is brought to life here today. In a city captured via the sword, the sermon is recited with a sword.

Armağan also referred to the green Ottoman flags placed in the Hagia Sophia and said: “The fact that these symbols are back means that the Ottoman Empire is back.”

Hagia Sophia (Greek for “Holy Wisdom”), was built in the sixth century (532-537 CE) in Constantinople under the direction of the emperor Justinian I of the Eastern Roman (Byzantine) Empire. It was the largest church in the world for centuries. 

The city of Constantinople was founded by emperor Constantine the Great in 284-337 CE. The city, according to historian Donald L. Wasson, became “the economic and cultural hub of the east and the center of both Greek classics and Christian ideals.” However, when Constantinople was invaded and looted by the Ottoman Turks in 1453, the city and Hagia Sophia became a site of massacre and abuse. 

Historians (such as Steven Runciman and Donald M. Nicol) documented that during the Turkish invasion, those who sought shelter within the church were enslaved, the women were sexually assaulted and most of the elderly, the infirm, wounded and sick were slaughtered. The remainder, including young boys, were sold into slavery. The church was then converted into a mosque by Ottoman Sultan Mehmed Mohammed II. In 1930, Turkey changed the name of the city to Istanbul. Five years later, Hagia Sophia was made into a museum.

Hagia Sophia in Constantinople is not the only abused church in Turkey. According to Ersoy Soydan, assistant professor of communications at Kastamonu University and author of Churches and Monasteries in Turkey, nine former Hagia Sophia churches are either already being used as mosques or are in the process of being renovated for this purpose. 

The youngest of these, in the city of Trabzon, was reopened as a mosque on July 28. The Hagia Sophia in Trabzon was first converted into a mosque after the then-Greek city fell to the Ottomans in 1461. In 1964, it was turned into a museum. The Turkish media openly reported the abuse of the historical church:

The design of the museum has been changed and toilets and reinforced concrete structures have been built around the museum. Some parts of the walls have been painted green. The frescoes on the ceiling have been covered with wooden curtains. The mosaic on the floor has been hidden under a carpet. Mosaics and paintings on the walls that survived hundreds of years have been devastated. Nails have been pounded on the historical walls to hang curtains to create a separate section for women.

You can see photos of the new Hagia Sophia “mosque” in Trabzon by clicking here

Destruction or abuse of churches culminated during and after the Christian genocide in Ottoman Turkey, which targeted Armenians, Assyrians and Greeks. According to research by professors of history Benny Morris and Dror Ze’evi, from 1894 to 1924 “some 4 million Christians were either killed or forcibly removed from Turkey and the adjacent territories of eastern Thrace, Urmia and the southern Caucasus.” 

Since then, churches have not only been destroyed or converted into other purposes, they have also become targets for treasure hunters. Author Raffi Bedrosyan explainsMost of the churches left standing after 1915 fell victim to the attacks of the treasure hunters who dug under the foundations, hastening the collapse of the churches, as there is widespread belief that the clergy gets buried under the church floors along with valuable golden crosses.

Turkey still violates places of worship, religious liberty and history unapologetically after wiping out indigenous Christians from the region. This demonstrates the Turkish government’s utter disregard for human life and cultural heritage. 

Turkey exported its tradition of abusing churches to Cyprus during the Ottoman occupation. The Greek island of Cyprus was occupied by the Ottoman Turks from 1571 to 1878. During this period, many churches were violently converted into mosques. One of them is the Cathedral of Saint Sophia in Nicosia. The church was converted into a mosque after a Turkish invading force landed in Cyprus in 1570 and seized the city. It is now called “Selimiye Mosque” after Ottoman Sultan Selim II, who headed the Ottoman empire during that invasion. Thousands of Muslims were settled on the island immediately following the Ottoman takeover. 

In 1878, Britain gained control of the island. In 1960, Cyprus became an independent republic and was admitted as a member of the UN. In violation of the Treaty of Guarantee it signed in 1960 with Britain, Greece, and Cyprus to enable Cypriot independence, Turkey once again invaded the island in 1974. One third of the Greek Cypriots became refugees in their own country: Between 180,000 and 200,000 Greek Cypriots fled from their homes in the north, and were pushed into the free, southern part of the republic as refugees. The northern third of the island has been illegally occupied by the Turkish military ever since, despite UN Security Council resolutions demanding a withdrawal. The destruction of Christian and other non-Muslim civilizations in the occupied part have been extensively documented. For instance, according to a 2012 report by Cypriot historic preservationists,  “The churches have been subject to the most violent and systematic desecration and destruction.”

Many churches and monasteries have been looted or destroyed while others have been turned into mosques, museums, places of entertainment, hotels, and barracks for the Turkish army, among other things. Historic paintings and mosaics have been removed from church walls by Turkish smugglers and sold illegally abroad. 

Meanwhile, Turkey’s political opposition does not raise its voice in protest against the abuse of Hagia Sophia in Istanbul. On July 4, the head of the main opposition Republican People’s Party (CHP), Kemal Kılıçdaroğlu, said that they would not object if the government turned Hagia Sophia into a mosque. 

On July 13, the city’s mayor, Ekrem İmamoğlu, a member of the CHP, also expressed his support for the historic cathedral’s conversion into a mosque. “Hagia Sophia has been a mosque in my mind and conscience since 1453,” he said. “It is also a value of Istanbul civilization that has been embraced by the world. In all my speeches I refer to it as the ‘Hagia Sophia Mosque.'”

The current population of Turkey is about 80 million, but Christians only comprise around 0.2 percent. Yet Christianity has a long history in today’s Turkey. It is the birthplace of many apostles and saints such as Paul of Tarsus, Timothy, Nicholas of Myra, and Polycarp of Smyrna. It is home to the Seven Churches of Asia. Constantinople and Antioch (Antakya) were two out of the five ancient cities of the pentarchy. Antioch is where the followers of Jesus were for the first time in history called “Christians” and the site of one of the earliest churches established by Saint Peter. All of the first seven Ecumenical Councils were also held in Asia Minor.

Turks, however, are not native to Asia Minor. Originally from Central Asia, Turks arrived in Asia Minor, which was then within the borders of the Byzantine Empire and ruled by indigenous Greeks, in the eleventh century and started conquering the land. Even the names of the region come from the Greek language such as “Anatolia” (from the Greek “Anatole,” “east” or “sunrise”), “Asia Minor” (Latin after the Greek “Mikra Asia,” or “little Asia”) and even “Istanbul” (from the Greek “into the city”).

Professor Speros Vryonis Jr. documented in his book The Decline of Medieval Hellenism in Asia Minor and the Process of Islamization from the Eleventh through the Fifteenth Century that the Turkish act of targeting churches started with the Turkish takeover of the territory during that period. Turkey’s authorities, however, deny what they have done to obliterate Christians who lived there before they renamed it.  However, even in the 21st century, Turkey, a NATO member that regards itself as a candidate for European Union membership, continues to systematically violate churches and the principle of religious liberty. As the saying goes, old habits die hard.

Uzay Bulut is a Turkish journalist and political analyst formerly based in Ankara. Her writings have appeared in The Washington Times, The American Spectator, The Christian Post, and The Jerusalem Post, among many other news outlets. Bulut’s journalistic work focuses mainly on human rights, Turkish politics and history, religious minorities in the Middle East, and antisemitism.



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