RNS: It's no rumor; Turks want Hagia Sophia as a mosque

Talk about a trip into my guilt file.

I just did a quick search in my email files and it appears that I started receiving alerts about the following story in 2007 -- all linked to appeals for Eastern Orthodox Christians to sign petitions opposing Turkish efforts to turn the iconic Hagia Sophia back into a mosque.

I've been receiving emails about this topic ever since. The journalistic problem, of course, was that Turkish leaders dismissed these reports, attributing them to the paranoid imaginations of the leaders of a tiny, although ancient, minority group in Turkey and their troublemaking international Christian allies.

Now, it appears that there is a bit of movement towards coverage. Let me praise the Religion News Service for weaving together some of the recent public, factual developments into an important wire-service story.

Will other media pay attention? For that matter, will the U.S. State Department pay attention?

Here's the top of the report. Note the emphasis on the fact that other Byzantine-era churches have already been reconverted to mosques by the current Turkish government, which is usually referred to in media reports as one committed to using a more moderate Islamist approach, one that often clashes with Turkey's recent history of alleged secularism.

ISTANBUL (RNS) -- In this ancient city, there are few sights more iconic than the dome of the Hagia Sophia, towering over the old city for more than 1,400 years.

But recent conversions of former Byzantine-era churches from museums into mosques, encouraged by religious and political leaders, have caused alarm among religious minorities and Turkey’s Christian neighbors.

“We currently stand next to the Hagia Sophia Mosque,” Turkey’s deputy prime minister, Bulent Arinc, remarked last month during a dedication of a museum of Caucasus carpets and rugs in the Hagia Sophia complex. “We are looking at a sad Hagia Sophia but hopefully we will see it smiling again soon.”

Arinc, also a senior Cabinet minister from the ruling Islamic-rooted Justice and Development Party, mentioned two recent conversions of smaller Byzantine-era museums -- in Trabzon in the northeast and Iznik near Istanbul — that have become working mosques.

The speech was just the latest call for the building to be converted into a mosque after a sermon in October by the imam of the neighboring Sultan Ahmet mosque. He told worshippers a conversion must take place, and his comments were soon followed by a campaign launched by the far-right National Turkish Student Association.

Now that is an impressive parade of facts, all of which center on statements and events in the public square. How can they be ignored?

For those seeking a bit of history on this building, which is one of the architectural wonders of the world, click here for a summary found at the rather neutral LiveScience website. Many readers will also want to click here for an Orthodox summary of its past. Suffice it to say that there has been a great church on this site since 360 and the sanctuary, in its current form, was constructed between 532 and 537 (which is amazing to even contemplate).

The key at the moment?

This great church was converted to a mosque when Constantinople fell to the Ottoman Turks in 1453. Under the largely secular regime of Turkish president Kemal Ataturk, the mosque was converted into a neutral museum in 1934. Over the decades, especially since the mid-1990s, researchers have attempted to recover -- with some stunningly successful results -- many of the priceless icons and mosaics that were covered with plaster during the church's conversion into a mosque.

The problem, of course, is that many Muslims -- some would say "most," rather than "many" -- believe that it is impossible under Sharia law for a worship space that has been used as a mosque to ever be used for another purpose. Obviously, the secular leaders of Turkey would have never considered allowing Haggia Sophia to be used, once again, as one of the world's greatest cathedrals.

The RNS report notes that the primary tensions that are driving this story appear to be WITHIN ISLAM, as opposed to another round of tensions between Muslims and Turkey's tiny oppressed Christian population.

Some critics say the spate of conversions of Byzantine-era Christian houses of worship from museums to mosques reflects the government’s payback against Turkey’s former secular military elite, which has historically jailed leaders of religious parties and staged coups against elected governments.

“It is mostly a challenge to the secular rulers of Turkish republic,” said Engin Akyurek, a professor of Byzantine art at Istanbul University. The government “re-converts church-mosques which were used as museums during the republican era so it is related to the domestic politics,” he said.

Why do I want to praise this story, other than my obvious interest as an Orthodox Christian? I mean, yes, I have visited Hagia Sophia twice and, yes, I have silently prayed before some of the uncovered icons. I know I am not a neutral source of info on this and I have held off writing a column about the subject because there were few highly public, on-the-record sources to quote other than the words of Greeks and others fearing the worse.

That's what makes this RNS story so timely and strong. Look at the simple, clear attributions. Note that most of the news in this story comes from Muslim voices in public statements.

It's a story. It's real. It's time for the media to cover this.

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