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Battle over whether Turkey's Hagia Sophia should be a mosque or museum goes to court

“It captures a unique history, why pull that into politics?” said Ziya Meral, a member of Turkey’s Christian community.
Image: Hagia Sophia or Ayasofya, a UNESCO World Heritage Site, which was a Byzantine cathedral before being converted into a mosque and is now a museum in Istanbul, Turkey
Hagia Sophia, a UNESCO World Heritage Site, was a Byzantine cathedral before being converted into a mosque and is now a museum in Turkey's capital Istanbul.Murad Sezer / Reuters

Istanbul’s Hagia Sophia site has stood as empires rose and fell around it, as rulers and statesmen came and went, as creeds flourished and withered.

Now the 1,500-year-old former cathedral and then mosque is at the center of a modern struggle between Turkey’s secular roots and its president’s Islamist aspirations. The battle over who, if anybody, can pray in the UNESCO World Heritage site reflects a larger one playing out across a society split between secularism and religious conservatism.

On Thursday, Turkey’s Council of State heard arguments by lawyers for the Association for the Protection of Historic Monuments and the Environment, a group asking for the Hagia Sophia to be reverted from a museum to a mosque.

The association is pressing for an annulment of the 1935 decision that turned the iconic structure into a museum, where religious services or group prayers would not be held. A decision is expected within two weeks.

If the court decides in the NGO’s favor, it will be the latest in a long line of twists and turns for Hagia Sophia, which has long dominated Istanbul’s skyline, a symbol of the city’s status as a bridge between the East and the West, and the Muslim and the Christian worlds.

Constructed as a church, after it was completed in 537 the Hagia Sophia was immediately central to early Christianity and its vast cathedral dome was hailed as a marvel. In 1453, when the Ottomans conquered the city previously known as Constantinople, it became a mosque. Fast forward some 500 years and it was converted into a museum soon after the foundation of modern and secular Turkey.

Image: Byzantine-era monument of Hagia Sophia or Ayasofya is seen in Istanbul
Constructed as a Byzantine cathedral work on the Hagia Sophia was completed in 537. Murad Sezer / Reuters

Today, it is one of the country’s most popular attractions, with millions visiting every year.

But Turkey’s hardline Islamist President Recep Tayyip Erdogan has set his sights on the building. In a campaign speech ahead of local elections last year, he said it had been a “very big mistake” to turn it into a museum.

Ziya Meral, a member of Turkey’s Christian community believed to number around 100,000, says that turning it into a mosque and allowing only Muslims to pray would feel exclusivist.

For Meral, it is the building’s mixture of its Christian roots and Arabic scriptures that holds extraordinary meaning for all Turks.

“Whenever I went into Hagia Sophia, I always felt like I was stepping into history or a heritage in this land that I related to,” Meral, who is a senior associate fellow at the London-based Royal United Services Institute, said during a phone interview. “But I’m also stepping into a synthetism of culture that I carry within my body, within my life habits, within my world view, that somehow that sacred space brings it all together.”

Hagia Sophia’s mixture of religions and societies is what made it so symbolic for Turkey, a country that has wrestled with being both predominantly Muslim but was founded in the early 20th century on secular beliefs of separating religion and state.

The move has caught the attention of many abroad, including in the United States.

“We urge the government of Turkey to continue to maintain the Hagia Sophia as a museum, as an exemplar of its commitment to respect Turkey’s diverse faith traditions and history, and to ensure it remains accessible to all,” Secretary of State Mike Pompeo said recently.

In spite of pressure from longtime allies like the U.S., Erdogan and his Justice and Development Party, or AK Party, have insistently pushed the balance ever more in favor of religion in Turkey.

He has worked to make mosques even more part of public life than what Turkish history has already provided.

One of the most controversial is still under construction in the city’s central square which served as the center of anti-government protests in 2013.

Erdogan, and the Turkish association in the court case, certainly have supporters.

Onur Erim, a Muslim Turk who heads a consulting firm in Istanbul, is in favor of bringing Muslim prayers back into Hagia Sophia and said he would go to pray there himself.

He believed that despite the building being a museum, it is also still a mosque -- just one that does not hold Muslim prayers.

Image: People visit the Byzantine-era Hagia Sophia, one of Istanbul's main tourist attractions in the historic Sultanahmet district of Istanbul
One of Istanbul's main tourist attractions in the historic Sultanahmet district of Istanbul, millions visit the Hagia Sophia each year. Emrah Gurel / AP

As such, he did not think much would needed to be done if a court decision allowed for Muslim prayers to return, but some analysts have suggested that curtains could be used to cover precious Byzantine Christian mosaics and other art.

He said, over a phone call, that from his understanding, the Quran does not allow for a building to serve as both a church and a mosque.

“When you conquer some place … that’s it, you get all the rights to it,” said Erim, who worked for the former AK Party mayor of the capital Ankara.

“To me, opening up the Hagia Sophia mosque is a big issue. It goes beyond the AK Party, it goes beyond Erdogan, it goes beyond any party in Turkey or any kind of political viewpoint.”

In response Meral said that Istanbul had been conquered and "there's nothing for Turks to prove about the strength of their country, the strength of their defense, their military and their position in the region."

However, there may be more than religious devotion behind the move to convert it into a mosque, says Berk Esen, an assistant professor of international relations at Bilkent University in the capital Ankara.

For one thing, the debate diverts attention from more pressing concerns for many Turks, such as the rising unemployment amid a pandemic in a country with one of the largest outbreaks in its region.

Going against the wishes of Western leaders, like Pompeo, and pushing such a cultural wedge issue could also allow Erdogan to build on his populist, conservative image, but it would not gain him many voters, Esen argued.

Erdogan is “increasingly coming across as a leader who’s out of touch with contemporary times, with contemporary issues,” Esen said during a phone interview.

For Meral, the mere politicization of Hagia Sophia is what he said saddens him.

“It captures a unique history, why pull that into politics?” he said. “Does this actually add something?”