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Turkey Uncensored: Will Turkey Succeed in Turning the Hagia Sophia Into a Mosque?

By Wednesday, August 16, 2017

The Islamist Felicity Party (Turkish: Saadet Partisi) organized the “Great Jerusalem demonstration” on July 30 in Istanbul. This event was attended by thousands of people who condemned Israel following the recent incidents on the Temple Mount.

The demo quickly turned into an anti-Israel and anti-Jew hate fest in which several Islamic activists delivered harsh speeches against the Jewish State. Mustafa Koylu, the head of the Cansuyu Association, said, “You have to do one thing so that those who do not see Turkey as a man and as a state will think once again. Open Hagia Sophia to [Muslim] worship! Open it! If you open Hagia Sophia to worship, Zionists will not be able to close al-Aqsa mosque to worship. Because then you will prove that you are a nation.”

Salih Turhan, the head of the Islamic Anatolian Youth Association, openly stated that the demonstration was not about the freedom to pray at the al-Aqsa Mosque, but that it was focused on Islamist displeasure at the Jewish presence in Jerusalem.

“Even if you remove all of the obstacles in front of the Masjid-i Aqsa [al-Aqsa mosque] and enable everyone to perform Friday prayers, our reaction to you will not end,” he said. “Only when you leave all of the Palestinian lands you have seized since 1948 will our attitude to you partly diminish. Even if you make all of our Palestinian brothers martyrs and come here and make all of our brothers in this square martyrs, our struggle will not end. We do not recognize Tel Aviv as the capital of Israel either. Go find yourself another land!”

Before the rebirth of Israel in 1948, Jew-haters repeatedly told Jews to go back to their land – Israel. Now that Jews are back in their native land, Jew-hating tyrants in the Muslim world (who systematically persecute non-Muslim natives) are telling Jews to leave and “find themselves another land.”

In contrast to the lack of religious liberty for Christians and other non-Muslims in Muslim-majority lands, Muslims in Jerusalem can pray at their mosques freely – as long as they do not resort to violence. The cause of the recent conflicts surrounding the Temple Mount was actually the deadly terror attack committed on the compound. After two police officers were murdered by three Muslim extremists, Israeli authorities had to place metal detectors at the entrances of the mosque to prevent Muslims from smuggling weapons onto the Temple Mount and to provide security for both worshippers and tourists.

But the Turkish government has been attempting to incite more conflict in Jerusalem over these incidents. Turkish president Recep Tayyip Erdoğan called on Muslims “to go defend Jerusalem.” He even went on to accuse Israel of “trampling on Islamic sacred [values],” adding, “Israeli soldiers pollute Al-Aqsa grounds with combat boots, and easily spill blood.”

Meanwhile, the efforts of the same Turkish government to convert the Hagia Sophia – which was designed to be the major basilica of the Eastern Roman (Byzantine) Empire – to a mosque have been ongoing since 2013. Despite repeated opposition and criticism by the government of Greece, muezzins have recited the Quran on several occasions, such as during the Islamic month of Ramadan, since 2015. Turkey has also appointed a permanent imam for the site.

History professor Dr. Alexandros Kyrou described the church in his article titled Hagia Sophia: Turkey’s Ottoman Icon:

For virtually a millennium, Hagia Sophia was Christendom’s largest, most revered and awe-inspiring church. Despite Hagia Sophia’s present diminished and abused condition, it is not difficult for even today’s visitor to appreciate the description found in a famous Russian ambassadorial report sent from Constantinople in 987 to Vladimir, Prince of Kiev, of what one encountered upon entering the great cathedral: “We did not know where we were, on heaven or on earth.”

In June, the U.S. State Department called on the Turkish government to “preserve the Hagia Sophia in a way that respects its complex history.”

But the history of the Hagia Sophia is not so complex. It would be more accurate to call its history striking and enormously tragic.

1453: The Fall of Constantinople

Constantinople was re-inaugurated by Roman Emperor Constantine I (324–337), and the Hagia Sophia was built in the 530s. On May 29, 1453, after a seven-week siege, the Ottoman army invaded and captured the city of Constantinople; Hagia Sophia was then converted to a mosque. Dionysios Hatzopoulos, a professor of classical and Byzantine studies, described what happened after the city fell to the Ottoman Turks:

Bands of soldiers began now looting. Doors were broken, private homes were looted, their tenants were massacred. Shops in the city markets were looted. Monasteries and convents were broken in. Their tenants were killed, nuns were raped; many, to avoid dishonor, killed themselves. Killing, raping, looting, burning, enslaving went on and on according to tradition. The troops had to satisfy themselves. The great doors of Saint Sophia were forced open, and crowds of angry soldiers came in and fell upon the unfortunate worshippers. Pillaging and killing in the holy place went on for hours. Similar was the fate of worshippers in most churches in the city. Everything that could be taken from the splendid buildings was taken by the new masters of the imperial capital. Icons were destroyed, precious manuscripts were lost forever. Thousands of civilians were enslaved; soldiers fought over young boys and young women. Death and enslavement did not distinguish among social classes. Nobles and peasants were treated with equal ruthlessness.

Kyrou wrote that the Islamic takeover of Hagia Sophia was viewed by the Ottoman Turks as “the superiority of their state and faith over all other nations and all religions.” He explained, “Mehmet took great satisfaction in his belief that he had fulfilled Mohammed’s prophecy articulated in the Hadith: ‘Verily you shall conquer Constantinople. What a wonderful leader will her leader be, and what a wonderful army will that army be!’

“Thereafter, Constantinople and Hagia Sophia represented for the Ottoman Turks much more than merely their empire’s capital and preeminent mosque, respectively. The conquest of Christianity’s greatest city and church was understood by Mehmet and his successors as divine proof of the leading role in the Muslim world to which the Ottoman Empire was entitled, a belief also manifested by the Turks’ subsequent relocation of the Islamic Caliphate to Constantinople.

“Indeed, the purpose for the construction of the massive minarets that now tower over Hagia Sophia was to project to the world Islam’s triumph over Christendom’s greatest empire, city, and church.”

Turkey’s Dying Greek Minority

During the 11th century, Turkish jihadi warriors originally from Central Asia invaded and captured the lands of Asia Minor (today’s Turkey) previously under the Eastern Roman, or Byzantine Empire, which was both Christian and Greek.

The name Constantinople was changed to “Istanbul” in 1930 by republican Turkey, and Hagia Sophia was converted to a museum in 1935 – another insult to Christianity. Why did “secular” Turkey, founded by Mustafa Kemal Ataturk in 1923, convert the Hagia Sophia to a museum, but not allow it to be used as a church?

Contrary to popular belief in the West, Kemalist Turkey promoted neither secularism in a democratic sense nor equality for all faiths. It preserved Islam as the dominant religion of the society through the establishment of the state-funded Presidency of Religious Affairs (or the “Diyanet,” which is in charge of regulating Islamic affairs in Turkey), and even turned Islam into an “ethnic identity” and made it a crucial element of the Turkish identity – or “Turkishness.”

Professor Yeşim Bayar explained in her book Formation of the Turkish Nation-State, 1920–1938 that many Turkish parliamentarians – including the founder of the country – said openly that they perceived the Muslim character of the nation as an inevitable part of their definition of “Turkishness.” For example, during his address to the Turkish parliament in 1922, Kemal said, “Turk and Islam – the Turkish state is going to be the most fortunate state in the world, owing to the fact that it is the source for the manifestation of these two [elements].”

Accordingly, Turkish-style secularism has viewed non-Muslim citizens of Turkey with hostility and exposed them to steady, widespread persecution for decades. Greek-speaking Christian natives of Asia Minor are today a dying minority, as they have been persecuted nearly to extinction at the hands of Turks.

Violent attacks against Greeks greatly escalated during World War I and the founding phase of the Turkish republic. Greeks – together with other Christians – were first subject to a systematic campaign of extermination from 1914–1923, which the International Association of Genocide Scholars recognized as genocide in 2007. Many of the Greek Christians who survived that genocide were forced into exile in 1923.

Nearly two decades later, in 1941, Christian and Jewish males who were allowed to stay in Turkey were enlisted and gathered in labor battalions (or concentration camps), where they were forced to work under terrible conditions. A year later, in 1942, Turkey imposed a wealth tax on Greeks (together with Jews and Armenians) in an attempt to curtail their socioeconomic status in the country. Then, in 1955, Greeks in Istanbul were exposed to a pogrom and another forced exile in 1964. Thus, even the Greeks who were spared from the widespread expulsions in 1923 eventually suffered similar consequences. Today, fewer than 2,000 Greek-speaking Orthodox Christians reside in Turkey.

“The Orthodox minority is not only a victim of restrictions that apply to all religious minorities, but is also specifically targeted,” reported a 2005 legal analysis on Turkey by the Allard K. Lowenstein International Human Rights Clinic of Yale Law School.

Today, the Turkish government is trying to convert the grandest of Christian cathedrals back to a mosque, which is a sign of disrespect not only to the Greek Orthodox, but also to all Christians worldwide. But there is almost nothing that Turkey’s tiny Greek minority can do to preserve its religious and cultural heritage in its ancient homeland.

How would Muslims feel if their most important mosque in, say, Saudi Arabia, was converted to a museum following the bloody conquest of their land by alien invaders? The civilized world has seen that a few vital security measures implemented in Jerusalem due to the violent acts of Islamic supremacists are enough to make them riot in the streets and cause casualties.

Meanwhile, the West has been mostly silent and inactive in the face of the continued abuses against the Hagia Sophia. Many Turks are shouting slogans of triumph regarding the end of the most significant Byzantine church – and once again declaring the supremacy of Islam.

The civilized world’s most cherished values – religious liberty, diversity and peaceful coexistence – are alien to Islamic supremacists. For them, there is only one valid, true religion: Islam. To them, all other religions, cultures and philosophies are the inventions of perverts who have been led astray from Islam and, therefore, deserve to be annihilated. The very words and actions of Islamic fundamentalists demonstrate that this is their mentality, which has motivated their bloody conquests for centuries.

Western governments – particularly those in the European Union – seem to have forgotten how much Western democracy owes to Greek civilization, which was once centered in Constantinople. Western civilization was built on the Judea-Christian heritage of Athens, Jerusalem and Rome, but it fails to openly cherish its current status as the secular successor of Christendom.

Most Christian leaders have done next to nothing to protect Christians and their heritage in Turkey – which only encourages Islamists to view the Christian world as ill-informed, morally confused, and weak in the face of Islamic aggression.

Uzay Bulut

Uzay Bulut is a Turkish journalist and political analyst formerly based in Ankara. She graduated from Istanbul’s Bogazici University in 2007 with a BA in Translation and Interpreting Studies. She holds a master’s degree in Media and Cultural Studies at Ankara’s Middle East Technical University. Her writings have appeared in a variety of publications including Gatestone Institute, the Clarion Project, the Armenian Weekly, PJ Media, CBN News, the Algemeiner, the Kurdish newspaper Rudaw, International Business Times UK and the Voice of America. She has also contributed to several Israeli media outlets including the Jerusalem Post, Arutz Sheva (Israel National News), Israel Hayom and Jerusalem Online. Bulut’s journalistic work focuses mainly on Turkey’s ethnic and religious minorities, anti-Semitism, political Islam and the history of Turkey. She is currently based in Washington, D.C.

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