Turkey: nationalism is behind the Hagia Sophia affair

On 10 July, in a speech to the nation, President Erdoğan announced that the ancient Basilica of Hagia Sophia, a UNESCO World Heritage site, would be reopened for Muslim worship on 24 July. In his address, he stressed that Turkey had the “sovereign right” to convert the monumental complex into a mosque. Turkey’s Council of State, which had been asked to rule on Erdoğan’s request, overturned a decree issued on 24 November 1934 by then president, Mustafa Kemal (Atatürk), who had ordered that Hagia Sophia be turned into a museum. In 1453, after Constantinople’s fall to the Ottomans, the basilica had been turned into a mosque. Aid to the Church in Need (ACN) once more spoke with Étienne Copeaux, a historian specialising in modern-day Turkey, to get his thoughts about this decision. A former resident researcher at the French Institute of Anatolian Studies (l’Institut français d’études anatoliennes) in Istanbul, and a former researcher at the National Scientific Research Centre (Centre national de la recherche scientifique) in Paris, he runs the Susam-Sosak blog, focused on Turkey. The interview was conducted by Christophe Lafontaine.

1) In your view, by turning the ancient Christian Basilica of Hagia Sophia into a mosque, after it became a museum in 1934, is Erdoğan completing a long-term process?

The process dates back to the Conquest of Constantinople (1453), known as “Fetih”, a term which literally means “openness to Islam”. The victor, Sultan Mehmet II, is called “Fatih”, “the one who achieved a gain in Islam”. To “act out” the capture of the City and the fall of the Byzantine Empire, Mehmet II went to pray inside Hagia Sophia (Turkish: Ayasofya). That was a very important gesture. As a result of this, Hagia Sophia became a mosque for almost five centuries. Ayasofya is also mentioned in Muhammad’s sayings (hadith). One hadith lionises whomever took Constantinople, and the Turks indeed boast of doing what the Arabs failed to do. What is more, a legend attributes a prophecy to Muhammad, which is important to know in order to understand the importance of Hagia Sophia in the eyes of Muslim Turks. The dome of the basilica collapsed during an earthquake in 558, according to the legend, cited by Stéphane Yerasimos in his seminal work*, on the same night of Muhammad’s birthday. Muhammad then visited the Byzantine emperor in a dream and authorised him to rebuild the basilica “because […] his believers would one day pray there”. Under the Ottoman Empire, the building was so holy that Muslims would try to spend the ‘Night of destiny’ inside Hagia Sophia to mark the sacred time in the month of Ramadan when Muslims celebrate the Qurʼān’s revelation to Muhammad.

2) Was Atatürk’s desacralisation of the mosque in 1934 a breaking point for Turkish Muslims?

Since Hagia Sophia holds a special place in the hearts and faith of Turkish Muslims, one can understand how scandalous for them was the desacralisation of the mosque and its conversion into a museum by Atatürk. This act has become the symbol of Turkish secularism. But this must be seen in context: by this time, Turkey had eliminated most non-Muslims by genocide, mass expulsions and pogroms. And the process of ethnic cleansing did not stop: in 1955, 1964, 1974 . The desacralisation provoked internal anger among Muslims, which caused a reaction, which came to light on the fifth centenary of the Fetih, the Conquest of Constantinople, in 1953. Right-wing parties, both nationalist and religious, organised regular protests in front of Hagia Sophia to demand its return to Muslim worship. Since then, the demand has never stopped. During the “conquering” of the city hall of Istanbul in 1994, which was also called “fetih”, Erdogan became mayor of the city. Furthermore, during the victory in the legislative elections of 1995 by the Islamist party, Refah, of which Erdogan was a member, voters were promised the return of Aya Sofya to Islam. Now the job is done.

3) How much does the decision have to do with Erdoğan’s personality?

Certainly, Erdoğan’s “mark” counts. It took some nerve, if I may say; no one before him had dared to go so far. It must be noted, however, that at present Erdoğan did not “act out” the return from a position of strength and popular support. He’s in trouble. Islamists lost control of the Istanbul Municipality; the economic situation is disastrous. Erdoğan has been criticised from many quarters, and has failed to silence them through repression. By this act, he is obviously hoping to firmly rally the religious right around him. Turkey’s openly anti-Western military operations, despite the country’s membership of NATO, offer a favourable context. Hagia Sophia’s return to Islam is like the “icing on the cake”.

Étienne Copeaux, a historian specialising in modern-day Turkey.
Étienne Copeaux, a historian specialising in modern-day Turkey.

4) Are the rising tensions caused by Erdoğan’s decision primarily religious or political?

I think we should put things into perspective. Ayasofya was a mosque for five centuries. It is imbued with great sacredness, for both Christians and Muslims. If people can continue to visit it respectfully like any Turkish mosque, if the Byzantine mosaics are respected, why be so offended? In my opinion, the problem is political, not religious, since the Qurʼān and many Islamic religious texts revere Jesus/Isa and Mary/Maryam. Erdoğan acted for the sake of Turkish nationalism, not the Muslim faith. Ayasofya is a nationalist question and matter; that is the problem. The return serves no purpose from a cultural point of view since Istanbulites have far more mosques than they need, many of them huge and magnificent.

5) What message is Erdoğan sending to Turkey’s religious minorities, and more specifically to Christians, for this is not the first time in recent years that churches have been turned into a mosque?

On a religious level, Turkey’s main “message” to the world in the 20th century was the total destruction of a multi-ethnic and multi-religious society by means of extreme violence. All the massacres and expulsions were carried out on purely religious grounds as part of a nationalist agenda. Cyprus is the latest example. The northern part of the island is a real laboratory for this process: when Turkey invaded in 1974, all Orthodox Christians were expelled by the Turkish military, within an hour; not because they spoke Greek but because they were Orthodox.

Such actions are Ottoman in orientation with people institutionally divided into distinct religious communities. The paradox is that, despite problems and massacres, the Empire remained multi-religious. It is the supposedly secular republic that made Turkey 99% Muslim. In this respect I usually say that the Armenian genocide, although perpetrated a few years before the founding of the republic, was in fact its foundational moment.

6) For many people Hagia Sophia’s universal cultural and religious vocation is being trampled upon, should this be seen as an attack on religious freedom in Turkey?

As I said, “religious freedom” in Turkey has been destroyed by violence. Turkish nationalism is based on the notion that “the Turkish nation is Muslim”, and that one is not truly Turkish if one is not a Muslim. This view is echoed by the ‘other side’. I have often heard Jews and Orthodox Christians, Turkish citizens, say to me, “I am not Turkish”. This is a basic problem: for nationalist Turkey, non-Muslims are foreigners. Nationalism is THE real problem of this country. It sometimes comes across as clearly black and white. For example, on several occasions, geographic commissions have replaced place names of Greek, Armenian or other origin, deemed “foreign”. Armenians, Orthodox Christians, and Jews are foreigners in their own country, even though they have lived here for far longer than the Turks! In such a context, religious freedom formally exists, on paper, but there is a lot of intimidation: graves and cemeteries vandalised in Cyprus, and even Istanbul, not to mention murders. Non-Muslims have been forced to take a low profile, an attitude encouraged by priests in their sermons, as I personally witnessed at an Easter Mass in Istanbul.

7) Do you believe in a shock wave in the eastern and the western worlds?

Why so much fuss over Hagia Sophia, since Turkish nationalists have always done whatever they wanted to non-Muslims, without any protest from the West? The terrible pogrom against Orthodox Christians in Istanbul in September 1955 is a case in point; this was followed by the expulsion of 100,000 ethnic Greeks from the city, Turkish citizens forced to leave for Greece, a country they didn’t know, descendants of the city’s original population, driven out with ‘twenty dollars and twenty kilos of luggage’, since everything else was taken from them. Any ‘shock wave’ should have been activated not by religion, but by a simple sense of humanity. Aren’t these facts – I’m not even talking about the Armenian genocide – more important than the return of Hagia Sophia to Islam?

* Stéphane Yerasimos, La fondation de Constantinople et de Sainte-Sophie dans les traditions turques (The foundation of Constantinople and Hagia Sophia in Turkish traditions), Istanbul/Paris: IFEA et Jean Maisonneuve, 1990.

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Que signifie pour vous cette visite ?

La visite du Pape nous remontera le moral, plus que toute autre chose. Tous les yeux de la planète seront dirigés vers Baghdeda. Le monde saura ainsi ce qui est arrivé à cette ville : les terribles destructions et la migration forcée. Ce serait également bien si nous recevions ensuite un peu plus d’aide et de soutien. Cette visite est très importante pour nous qui sommes ici, surtout après l’énorme migration forcée de tant des nôtres. Cette visite signifie que nous ne sommes pas seuls et qu’il y a des gens qui prient pour nous. Cela nous donnera de l’espoir, nous encouragera à rester dans notre pays et à ne pas le quitter.

Qu’aimeriez-vous dire au Saint-Père ?

Si j’ai l’occasion de le rencontrer, je voudrais le remercier pour sa visite qui nous rend très heureux, et pour ses prières. Je tiens également à le remercier pour toute l’aide qu’il nous a procurée ces derniers temps. Je n’oublie pas sa grande solidarité et le geste qu’il a fait en vendant aux enchères la Lamborghini qu’on lui avait donnée pour soutenir avec l’argent récolté la reconstruction de la plaine de Ninive. Je voudrais aussi qu’il continue à prier pour nous afin que la paix arrive en Irak.

Qu’aimeriez-vous lui montrer à Qaraqosh/Baghdeda ? Que devrait-il visiter ?

Je voudrais lui montrer l’église historique Al-Tahira et des photos de Baghdeda, je voudrais qu’il voie comment l’État Islamique l’a détruite et comment les gens d’ici ont eu le courage de la reconstruire.

¿Qué significa la visita para usted?
La visita del Papa levantará el ánimo y la moral, más que cualquier otra cosa. Todos los ojos del mundo se dirigirán a Baghdeda. Así, el mundo sabrá lo que le sucedió a esta ciudad. La terrible destrucción y la migración forzada. También sería bueno si luego recibimos más ayuda y apoyo. Esta visita es realmente importante para nosotros, los que estamos aquí, especialmente después de la enorme migración forzada de tantos de los nuestros. La visita significa que no estamos solos y hay quienes rezan por nosotros. Esto nos dará esperanza, nos animará a permanecer en nuestra tierra y no dejarla.

¿Qué le gustaría decirle al santo padre?
Si tengo la oportunidad de encontrarme con él: quiero agradecerle su visita, que nos hace muy felices, y su oración. También quiero darle las gracias por todo lo que nos ha ayudado durante el último periodo. No me olvido de su gran solidaridad y del gesto de subastar el Lamborghini para apoyar con ese dinero la reconstrucción de la llanura de Nínive. También quiero que siga orando por nosotros para que la paz llegue a Irak.

¿Qué le gustaría mostrarle en Baghdeda /Qaraqosh? ¿Qué debería visitar?
Quiero mostrarle la histórica iglesia Al-Tahira y fotos de Baghdeda, quiero que vea cómo fue destruida por ISIS y cómo la gente de aquí ha sido tan fuerte para reconstruirla nuevamente.

Was bedeutet der Besuch für Sie?
Der Besuch des Papstes wird die Stimmung und die Moral heben, mehr als alles andere. Alle Augen der Welt werden auf Baghdida gerichtet sein. Dann wird die Welt erfahren, was mit dieser Stadt passiert ist, die schreckliche Zerstörung und die erzwungene Migration. Es wäre auch gut, wenn wir anschließend mehr Hilfe und Unterstützung bekommen würden. Dieser Besuch ist wirklich wichtig für uns hier, besonders nach der großen Zwangsmigration so vieler unserer Leute. Der Besuch bedeutet, dass wir nicht allein sind, und dass es Menschen gibt, die für uns beten. Das wird uns Hoffnung geben, es wird uns ermutigen, in unserem Land zu bleiben und es nicht zu verlassen.

Was würden Sie dem Heiligen Vater gerne sagen?
Wenn ich die Gelegenheit habe, ihn zu treffen: Ich möchte ihm für seinen Besuch, der uns sehr glücklich macht, und für sein Gebet danken. Ich möchte mich auch bei ihm für alles bedanken, was uns in der letzten Zeit geholfen hat. Ich werde nie seine große Solidarität vergessen sowie die Geste, den Lamborghini zu versteigern (siehe Link zur Meldung), um mit diesem Geld den Wiederaufbau der Ninive-Ebene zu unterstützen. Ich möchte auch, dass er weiterhin für uns betet, damit im Irak Frieden einkehrt.

Was möchten Sie ihm in Baghdida /Karakosch zeigen? Was sollte er besuchen?
Ich möchte ihm die historische Al-Tahira-Kirche zeigen und Bilder von Baghdida, ich möchte, dass er sieht, wie alles von ISIS zerstört wurde und welcher Kraft die Menschen hier es wiederaufgebaut haben.

What does the Pope’s visit mean to you?
The papal visit will lift up our spirits and morale more than anything else. All the eyes of the world will be on Baghdeda. And in this way the world will know what happened to this city. The terrible destruction and the forcible ethnic cleansing. It will also be a good thing if afterwards we get more support and help. This visit is really important to us, to those of us who are living here, especially after the massive ethnic cleansing and expulsion of so many of us. His visit means that we are not alone and that there are people who are praying for us. This will give us fresh hope and encourage us to persevere, here on our own soil, and not leave it.

What would you like to say to the Holy Father?
If I get the opportunity to meet him, I would like to be able to thank him for his visit, which has made us very happy, and for his prayers. I would also like to thank him for all he has done to help us in recent times. I have not forgotten his great gesture of solidarity in auctioning the Lamborghini in order to use the money to help pay for the reconstruction of our homes on the Niniveh plains. I would also like to ask him to continue praying for us and for peace to return to Iraq.

What would you like to show him in Qaraqosh/ Baghdeda? Which places should he visit?
I would like to show him our historic Al-Tahira church, and some photos of Baghdeda. I’d like him to be able to see how it was destroyed by IS and how the people here have worked so hard recently to rebuild it once more.

Qu’est-ce que cette visite signifie pour vous ?

La visite du Pape est ce que nous désirions le plus ici. C’est une grande bénédiction. Nous avons un grand désir de le voir. Ce qui rajoute de l’importance à cette visite, c’est la situation de vulnérabilité que nous, chrétiens, subissons en Irak. Il y a plusieurs raisons à cette fragilité, toutes sont les séquelles de l’État Islamique. Toutes ces destructions ont grandement contribué à l’émigration des chrétiens. De nombreux problèmes pèsent sur nous. Mais par sa visite, le Pape nous donnera de l’espérance et de la confiance, il nous encouragera et réduira notre fardeau. Bien que la situation soit instable en Irak en ce qui concerne la sécurité, tout spécialement dans le domaine politique, on s’attend à ce qu’à l’arrivée du Pape, sa sécurité soit correctement assurée.

Qu’aimeriez-vous dire au Saint-Père ?

Je voudrais lui demander de me donner sa bénédiction, de bénir mon travail et le dévouement des prêtres d’ici, et de bénir le peuple par ses prières. Je voudrais lui demander d’aider tous ceux qui sont en danger dans ce pays, qu’ils soient chrétiens ou musulmans. Qu’il tente de mobiliser les pays du monde entier pour soutenir ce pays qui a besoin d’aide.

Qu’aimeriez-vous lui montrer à Qaraqosh/Baghdeda ? Que devrait-il visiter ?

J’aimerais qu’il visite l’église Al-Tahira, parce que c’est un symbole et un élément du patrimoine de Baghdeda. Cette église est la mère, le foyer et le patrimoine de chacun des habitants de Baghdeda. Nos ancêtres ont construit cette église, nous avons tous le sentiment d’en faire partie. Bien sûr, nous serions heureux qu’il visite de nombreux endroits, des églises, monastères et maisons traditionnelles, et qu’il rencontre également beaucoup de gens qui ont le désir de le voir.

¿Qué significa la visita para usted?
La visita del Papa es lo que más hemos deseado aquí. Es una gran bendición. Sentimos un gran anhelo de verlo. Lo que agrega importancia a esta visita son las condiciones tan vulnerables que sufrimos los cristianos en Irak. Hay varios motivos para esa fragilidad, todas las secuelas que ha dejado el ISIS, esa enorme destrucción ha llevado en gran medida a la emigración de cristianos. Muchos problemas pesan sobre nosotros. Pero cuando nos visite, nos dará esperanza, confianza y aliento y reducirá esta carga. Además del hecho de que la situación de seguridad en Irak, especialmente la política, es inestable, se espera que a la llegada del Papa se garantice su seguridad de manera correcta.

¿Qué le gustaría decirle al santo padre?
Querría pedirle que me dé su bendición, que bendiga mi servicio y la entrega de los sacerdotes aquí y que bendiga al pueblo a través de sus plegarias. Le pido que ayude a todos los que están en peligro en este país, ya sean cristianos o musulmanes. Que intente movilizar a los países del mundo para que apoyen a este país que necesita ayuda.

 ¿Qué le gustaría mostrarle en Baghdeda / Qaraqosh? ¿Qué debería visitar?
Me encantaría que visite la iglesia Al-Tahira, porque es símbolo y patrimonio de Baghdeda. Esta iglesia es madre, hogar y herencia de cada uno de los habitantes de Baghdeda. Nuestros antepasados ​​construyeron esta iglesia, todos nos sentimos parte de ella. Ciertamente, nos alegraría que visitara muchos lugares, iglesias, monasterios y casas tradicionales,  también que vea a muchas personas que anhelan verlo.

Was bedeutet der Besuch für Sie?
Der Besuch des Papstes ist das, was wir uns hier am meisten gewünscht haben. Es ist ein großer Segen. Wir spüren eine starke Sehnsucht, ihn zu sehen. Was diesen Besuch noch wichtiger macht, sind die äußerst prekären Bedingungen, unter denen wir Christen im Irak leiden. Es gibt mehrere Gründe für diese Zerbrechlichkeit. All die Folgen, die ISIS hinterlassen hat, diese enorme Zerstörung hat in großem Maße zur Auswanderung von Christen geführt. Viele Probleme lasten auf uns. Aber wenn er uns besucht, wird er uns Hoffnung, Zuversicht und Ermutigung geben und diese Last verringern. Auch wenn die Sicherheitslage im Irak, insbesondere die politische Situation, instabil ist, hoffen wir, dass bei der Ankunft des Papstes seine Sicherheit ausreichend gewährleistet ist.


Was würden Sie dem Heiligen Vater gerne sagen?
Ich möchte ihn bitten, mir seinen Segen zu geben, meinen Dienst und die Hingabe der Priester hier zu segnen und die Menschen durch seine Gebete zu segnen. Ich bitte ihn, all jenen zu helfen, die in diesem Land in Gefahr sind, ob sie nun Christen oder Muslime sind; und die Länder der Welt zu mobilisieren, um dieses Land, das Hilfe braucht, zu unterstützen.

Was möchten Sie ihm in Baghdida / Karakosch zeigen? Was sollte er besuchen?
Ich möchte, dass er die Al-Tahira-Kirche besucht, denn sie ist ein Symbol und Erbe von Baghdida. Diese Kirche ist die Mutter, die Heimat und das Vermächtnis eines jeden einzelnen Menschen in Baghdida. Unsere Vorfahren haben diese Kirche erbaut, wir alle fühlen uns als Teil von ihr. Sicherlich würden wir uns freuen, wenn er viele Orte, Kirchen, Klöster und traditionelle Häuser besuchen würde, und auch, wenn er viele Menschen treffen würde, die sich danach sehnen, ihn zu sehen.

What does the visit mean to you?
The papal visit is the thing we have longed for most of all here. It will be a great blessing. We have a great yearning to see him. What gives added importance to this visit is the so very vulnerable situation that we are suffering as Christians in Iraq. There are many reasons for this vulnerability, including the aftermath of what IS left behind, the enormous destruction which has led in such large measure to the emigration of the Christians. There are many problems weighing on us. But when he comes to visit us, he will give us new hope and confidence and some relief from this burden. In addition there is the fact that the security situation in Iraq, and especially the political situation, is so unstable, so we are hoping that when the Pope does arrive they will guarantee his security in the way that they should.


What would you like to say to the Holy Father?
I would like to ask him to give me his blessing, to bless my ministry and the hard work of all the priests here, and also to bless all the people through his prayers. I would ask him to help all those in danger in this country, whether they are Christians or Muslims. And that he might strive to encourage the countries of the world to support this nation, which is truly in need.

What would you like to show him in Qaraqosh/ Baghdeda? What places ought he to visit?
I would love him to visit the Al-Tahira church, because it is a symbol and a rich cultural legacy of Baghdeda. This church is the mother, the home and the inheritance of every one of the inhabitants of Baghdeda. Our forefathers built this church, and we all feel we are a part of it. Of course, we would be happy for him to visit many different places – churches, monasteries and traditional homes – and also for him to be able to meet all the many people who are longing to see him.

Que signifie pour vous cette visite ?

Elle a une valeur morale, et non pas économique. Cette question occupera l’opinion publique mondiale, et tout spécialement irakienne. J’ai l’impression d’y tenir une place importante.


Qu’aimeriez-vous dire au Saint-Père ?

Ce sera formidable de faire sa connaissance, et je voudrais lui dire : « Nous avons besoin d’une protection internationale parce que notre communauté chrétienne a subi une migration forcée ».

Qu’aimeriez-vous lui montrer à Qaraqosh/Baghdeda ? Que devrait-il visiter ?

J’aimerais lui montrer les églises et les maisons brûlées, afin qu’il voie les dégâts que l’État Islamique a laissés derrière lui dans cette ville. Et aussi notre Musée du patrimoine de Baghdeda pour lui présenter notre histoire et notre culture.

¿Qué significa la visita para usted?
La visita tiene un valor moral, no económico. Este tema ocupará la opinión pública en el mundo y especialmente en Irak. Siento que tengo un lugar importante en él.


¿Qué le gustaría decirle al santo padre?
Será genial conocerlo y querría decirle “necesitamos protección internacional, porque nuestra comunidad cristiana ha sufrido una migración forzada”.

¿Qué le gustaría mostrarle en Baghdeda /Qaraqosh? ¿Qué debería visitar?
Me gustaría mostrarle las iglesias y las casas quemadas, para que vea el daño que dejó ISIS en esta ciudad. Y también nuestro Museo del patrimonio de Baghdeda para presentarle nuestro historia y cultura.

Was bedeutet der Besuch für Sie?
Der Besuch hat einen moralischen Wert, keinen wirtschaftlichen. Er wird die öffentliche Meinung in der Welt und insbesondere im Irak beherrschen. Ich habe das Gefühl, dass ich einen wichtigen Anteil daran habe.

Was würden Sie dem Heiligen Vater gerne sagen?
Es wird großartig sein, ihn zu treffen, und ich möchte ihm sagen: „Wir brauchen internationalen Schutz, weil unsere christliche Gemeinschaft unter der erzwungenen Auswanderung gelitten hat“.

Was möchten Sie ihm in Baghdida /Karakosch zeigen? Was sollte er besuchen?
Ich möchte ihm die Kirchen und ausgebrannten Häuser zeigen, damit er den Schaden sieht, den ISIS in dieser Stadt angerichtet hat. Und auch unser Heimatmuseum in Baghdida, um ihm unsere Geschichte und Kultur näher zu bringen.

What does this visit mean to you?
This visit has a moral value rather than an economic one. This is a topic that will engage public opinion around the world and especially in Iraq. I feel as though I have an important part to play in it.

What would you like to say to the Holy Father?

It would be wonderful to be able to meet him, and I would like to be able to say to him, “We need international protection, because our Christian community was forcibly displaced.”

What would you like to show him in Qaraqosh/ Baghdeda? What places should he visit?
I would like to be able to show him the churches and houses that were burnt out, so that he could see the destruction left behind by IS in this city. And also our Baghdeda Heritage Museum, so that we can show him our history and culture.