Turkish President Recep Erdogan announced he may turn a former Byzantine cathedral into an enormous mosque, prompting widespread outrage from the Orthodox Christian community.
After construction was completed in the year 537, the Hagia Sophia (Greek for “Holy Wisdom”) functioned as an Eastern Orthodox cathedral and the seat of the Ecumenical Patriarch of Constantinople for almost a thousand years. Then, in 1453, following the fall of Constantinople at the hands of the Ottomans, Mehmed the Conqueror immediately ordered that the building be converted into a mosque. Tragically, the bells, altar, iconostasis and other precious relics were destroyed and beautiful mosaics depicting Jesus and other central biblical characters were destroyed or plastered over.
The ancient place of worship, located in Turkey’s capital of Istanbul, was converted into a museum back in 1935, but still remains a uniquely special place to many of the Greek Orthodox tradition.
Last year, President Erdogan recited an Islamic prayer in the Hagia Sophia, dedicating the “souls of all who left us this work as inheritance, especially Istanbul’s conqueror,” referring to Mehmed, who is historically noted as being an extremely violent and brutal leader with a penchant for having sex with underage boys (see “The Ottoman Centuries” by Scottish historian, Lord Kinross).
Skimming over these indiscretions, on Sunday, Erdogan explicitly said that the building may well be converted into a functioning mosque, just as Mehmed himself would have wanted.
“As you know, the mosque was converted to a museum in 1935, as a reflection of the (Republican People’s Party) CHP mentality. We may as well take a step and change that,” Erdogan was quoted as saying, according to the Greek Reporter.
Greek Foreign Minister George Katrougalos immediately snapped back at the president’s controversial statement.
“It is not only a great temple of Christendom — the largest for many centuries — it also belongs to humanity,” Katrougalos implored. “It has been recognized by UNESCO (the United Nations Educational Scientific and Cultural Organization), as part of our global cultural heritage.”
“So any questioning of this status is not just an insult to the sentiments of Christians, it is an insult to the international community and international law,” he said.