Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan ordered the conversion of Istanbul's world-famous Hagia Sophia into a mosque Friday, inflaming religious sensitivities in the Orthodox world and sparking fierce criticism of the Turkish leader’s “naked resort to religious populism”.
The announcement, which stated that control of the 6th century landmark would be handed to religious authorities to reopen as a place of Muslim worship, came just an hour after a Turkish court ruling Friday revoked its status as a museum. The decision followed warnings from the U.S., Russia, Greece and the U.N. not to change the status of the complex.
The court’s ruling was a victory for Erdogan, who had championed a Turkish religious organization’s legal bid to restore the mosque status of the UNESCO World Heritage site, which had served as a major site of worship in the Christian Byzantine and Muslim Ottoman empires. Erdogan has long sought to replace the secular underpinnings of the modern Turkish republic with his own vision of Islamic conservatism.
Completed in 537 by Byzantine emperor Justinian in the heart of the city then known as Constantinople, the Hagia Sophia was the world's largest church for centuries. The building became a mosque after the Ottoman conquest of the city in 1453, before becoming a museum as part of a 1934 decree by Mustafa Kemal Ataturk, the secularist founder of modern Turkey.
Friday’s ruling by Council of State found that Ataturk’s 1934 decree ending the site’s use as a mosque and designating it a museum was illegal.
The move drew immediate criticism from the Orthodox world. Nikos Christodoulides, Cyprus’ Minister of Foreign Affairs, tweeted that his country strongly condemned Turkey’s actions, describing them as “an effort to distract domestic opinion”.
“Turkey’s escalating, flagrant violation of its international obligations is manifested in its decision to alter the designation of Hagia Sophia, a world heritage site that is a universal symbol of the Orthodox faith,” he tweeted.
Greece’s culture ministry described the decision as an “open provocation,” while the Russian Orthodox Church said the move would fuel divisions. The Ecumenical Patriarch Bartholomew, the Istanbul-based spiritual head of about 300 million Orthodox Christians worldwide, said last week that any move to change the complex’s status would “disappoint millions of Christians around the world” and “fracture” the East and West.
While Erdogan’s decree was met with a standing ovation by members of his ruling AK Party in parliament, and cheered on by Islamic conservatives, analysts said many Turks were unimpressed by the move.
“This is a naked resort to religious populism by President Erdogan to bolster his waning support due to the flagging economy,” Fadi Hakura, a Turkey analyst at the Chatham House think-tank, told VICE News. “He’s trying to sideline Ataturk’s secular legacy, he’s trying to transform Turkey’s national identity in a much more religious direction.”
Hakura said these tactics were becoming less and less successful in drumming up support. According to pollster MetroPoll, nearly 44 percent of Turks believe the mosque designation is intended to deflect attention from Turkey’s economic woes.
“Turks, including conservative and nationalist-oriented Turks, are tiring of this religious populism,” said Hakura. He said most Turks cared more about the state of the economy than the status of the Hagia Sophia, and that Friday’s decision could hurt the former.
“It will further damage Turkey’s international reputation for tolerance and openness, and it will hurt tourism, which Erdogan is in desperate need of to support the economy,” he said.
“He’s cutting off his nose to spite his face.”