Faith and history collide

A famed Christian site may be sacrificed for political gain

It’s election year in Turkey…on the double.

The end of this month sees the electorate go the polls in the country’s local elections, with campaigning for the presidential elections in August gearing up to get into full swing as soon as the first polls close.

Locally, all eyes are on the ruling Justice and Development Party (AKP) and more specifically on Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan, whose next move on the political chessboard may well be dictated by the outcome of the March voting. It is widely anticipated that a good showing by AKP will serve as a springboard for a presidential bid by Mr Erdogan, while poor returns may well see Turkey facing a third round of voting if the government responds by announcing early parliamentary elections ahead of the 2015 deadline for that particular contest.

In many respects, the political scene in Turkey has not look so intriguing since earlier in the century. Assuming power in 2003, Mr Erdogan has weathered multiple storms faced by his administration, only to watch as, over the last 18 months, crises involving both financial corruption and dark deeds by the intelligence services have dealt serious blows to the standing of the AKP. (In 2013, The Irish Catholic reported on Turkey’s ‘hidden hand’, the Ergenekon, a grouping of intelligence and military personnel whose targeting of Christians was part of a scheme to demonise Muslim fundamentalists in the ‘secular’ country: Turkey’s Christians become political pawns, October 2013,

Dogged now by allegations of his own corruption and seeking voter backing for his own political survival, Mr Erdogan is under a measure of pressure he has not experienced in many years.


In an election year such pressures lead naturally to that major weapon of the political player – the election promise. Mr Erdogan is no exception to this rule of power play; already he has suggested that he might ban Facebook and YouTube if successful in the local elections, a lure indeed for thos fundamentalist Muslim elements who otherwise view the prime minister as a protector of the secular agenda.

"We are determined on this subject,” a suitably forceful Mr Erdogan promised in a recent television interview. “We will not leave this nation at the mercy of YouTube and Facebook.” We will take the necessary steps in the strongest way."

(it must be pointed out that Mr Erdogan may well have used the ‘royal we’; it was via YouTube that a recorded conversation allegedly between the prime minister and his son as they discussed corrupt practices, including how to hide massive amounts of ill-gotten monies, first surfaced, placing the Mr Erdogan very much on the defensive)

However, Mr Erdogan’s trump card for those traditional rivals must surely be news in recent weeks of plans to re-open a revered site of Christendom in Turkey, the basilica of Hagia Sophia in Istanbul, not for Christian celebrations, but for Muslim prayer.


A structure existing at the juncture of two worlds, east and west, and historically between Ottoman Constantinople and Turkish Istanbul, the Hagia Sophia stands keenly between two faith traditions in the ebb and flow of the regions historical story.

Built originally during the rule of the Emperor Constantius II, son of Constantine, in 360, the cathedral survived until 404 when it was destroyed during an uprising, paving the way for construction of a second structure which was burned down in 532 during yet another period of instability. The structure of the basilica as we see it today was begun immediately after 532 and was completed in 537, enduring as a place of Christian worship until 1453 with the conquest of Constantinople by Sultan Mehmed II. Converted for use as a mosque, this reality continued through to the decline of the Ottoman Empire and the onset of Mustafa Kemal Ataturk’s Turkey. As part of the new secular Turkey, the Hagia Sophia was closed for worship and declared a museum, which it has remained since 1935.

Existing as media speculation at this point, the suggestion of a return of the basilica to Muslim hands has been greeted with horror by the country’s Christian community, with Ecumenical Patriarch Bartholomew I leading the voices of opposition.

"We shall oppose it, and all Christians, be they Orthodox, Catholic or Protestant, shall be with us," Bartholomew declared."Hagia Sophia was built to bear witness to the Christian faith and if it must be returned to religious worship, that can only be for Christian worship."


Speculation it may be, but the signs locally do not inspire confidence. According to the ANSA news agency: “Turkey's two remaining Hagia Sophia (Greek for Holy Wisdom) basilicas and museums, in the cities of Trabzon and Nicaea, have in recent months been converted into mosques.” Meanwhile, moves are currently underway to reopen an Islamic school of learning, on ground next to Istanbul’s Hagia Sophia.

Rumours now abound that, following the local elections, Prime Minister Erdogan will invite a select group of leaders from Islamic countries to join him in Friday prayers at the Hagia Sophia on May 30. The date falls one day after the anniversary of Mehmud II’s conquest of Istanbul.

Unfortunately for Christians now worried by the stories swirling about their historic basilica, salvation cannot even be hoped for from Mr Erdogan’s rivals.  A member of the opposition, historian Yusuf Halacoglu of the Nationalist Action Party (MHP), claimed in November that Ataturk’s signature on the 1934 document to secularise the Hagia Sophia was faked. He submitted his own Bill to parliament to force the mosque issue. Not to be outdone, the largest opposition grouping, the Republican People’s Party, also called for plans to reopen the Hagia Sophia mosque. (By December, even Deputy Prime Minister Bulent Arinc was joining the pro-mosque voices)

The outcome may well be a disaster for the Christian community, and will no doubt lead to outrage internationally against any temptation by Muslims to damage the historic frescoes within the structure in a race for ‘purity’.

To a lesser degree, it may also sully the reputation of Prime Minister Erdogan and his political promises. If he does find himself at the Hagia Sophia in May, joining in prayers for the anniversary of the conquest of Constantinople, Mr Erdogan might pause to reflect on another anniversary.

In a classic case of a politician’s ‘do as I say, not as I do’, it was in May 2013 when he barked in parliament: “Leave the Hagia Sophia alone.”