A divisive move
Decision to reconvert the iconic Hagia Sophia into a mosque could be a costly misstep for President Erdogan and Turkey as a whole
President Recep Tayyip Erdogan's decision to reconvert the Hagia Sophia, a majestic 65,000 sq ft stone structure from the 16th century in Istanbul, to a mosque will further undermine Turkey's global standing on freedom of religion and minority rights.
Erdogan made the announcement earlier this month immediately after a top Turkish court revoked the 1934 decree by Mustafa Kemal Ataturk, the founder of the Turkish republic, which had turned the Hagia Sophia into a museum. During his single-party rule, Ataturk abolished the sultanate and set up a secular republic, enacting reforms to westernise the country by decree.
Built by the Byzantines in the 6th century, the Hagia Sophia was for centuries the world's largest building, a centrepiece for Christianity and an engineering marvel. After conquering Istanbul in 1453, Ottoman Sultan Mehmet II converted it into a mosque. In1934, Mustafa Kemal Ataturk's secular regime turned it into a museum. It was designated a UNESCO World Heritage site in the 1980s.
Therefore, the Hagia Sophia, which received 3.7 million visitors from across the globe last year, is unique in terms of its status since 1935. It is neither a church nor a mosque, but a neutral site.
The verdict was highly anticipated as Erdogan in recent weeks had revived the debate on the issue. Earlier he was hesitant to take a stand but in the run-up to local elections, he outlined his support for the mosque.
The Turkish leader decision seems to be a political ploy to boost his waning political support besides establishing his legacy. Turkey already has a problematic track record when it comes to minority rights and freedom of religion or belief and the move would further undermine the country's global image.
Inside the Hagia Sophia's majestic halls, one can see where empires, faiths and ideologies collided, and left their mark on this magnificent structure. While Christian icons adorn its domes, Islamic calligraphy hangs from its walls in an equally outstanding manner.
The demand for the reconversion of the Hagia Sophia into a mosque has been an old dream of Turkey's Islamists and pan-Turkic romanticists. They believed that the secular republic, far from having saved Turkey's sovereignty, wounded it and sold the country's soul to western modernity. The conversion of the Hagia Sophia, they thought, was the symbol of this humiliation.
In fact in the Islamist political tradition of Erdogan and his Justice and Development Party, the Ataturk's experiment of secular republican government was a foreign imposition on Turkey, and the Hagia Sophia's status as a museum a seal on the country's spirit.
A shrewd politician, Erdogan, who was prime minister between 2003 and 2014 and then the country's president, has gradually dismantled all obstacles on his power taking full control of the country.
Erdogan might be thinking that he has ended an era of humiliation by reconverting the monument into a mosque and has earned the Islamist power in his favour. Addressing Turkey just after the court's verdict on July 10, Erdogan wanted the entire nation, not just the Islamists, to make the spiritual journey with him.
Understandably, Christian community across the world has expressed concern over the development. Pope Francis has voiced 'profound sadness' while various authorities of the Greek and Russian Orthodox churches have expressed their indignation. Governments of the European Union and the US have expressed regrets.
Erdogan's decision can also have a repercussion. One should not forget that there are Christian extremists who care deeply about the Hagia Sophia and its symbolism. Also, Muslim minorities in Europe may face issues of religious freedom, as rightist governments could use Turkey's move to deny permission to build or renovate mosques on their own soil.
The conversion has also raised fears about the preservation of the building and its historic treasures. UNESCO while emphasising that the governments "must ensure that no modification is made to the outstanding universal value" of world heritage sites, called on Turkey to "engage before taking any decision that might impact the universal value of the site."
The first prayer at the reconverted mosque will take place on July 24, the anniversary of the Treaty of Lausanne, signed between the Allied powers and Turkey, which drew the boundaries of modern Turkey.
During prayers, mosaics at the Hagia Sophia will be covered by curtains or lasers. The Christian icons would be uncovered and be open to all visitors at other times, and admission would be free of charge, according to Turkey's governing Justice and Development Party (AK Party).
Turkey has many problems to face, but a shortage of mosques in Istanbul is not one of them. It would be better if Erdogan reverses his decision and restores the unique character of the iconic Hagia Sophia.
The writer is a former Editor of PTI and served as the West Asia correspondent for the same. Views expressed are personal