ISTANBUL (ChurchMilitant.com) - Turkey's highest administrative court is under pressure from radical Islamic President Recep Erdoğan and a majority of Turks to reclaim the world's greatest Byzantine basilica as a mosque.
Emperor Justinian the Great dedicated the Church of Hagia Sophia in Constantinople to the Wisdom of God in 537. Sultan Mohammed II conquered Constantinople and converted the basilica into a mosque in 1453. President Kemal Atatürk, founder of the Republic of Turkey, turned the mosque into a museum as part of his secularist reforms in 1934.
On July 2, Turkey's Council of State will decide whether to restore Muslim worship to the site by annulling Atatürk's decree that turned the basilica from a mosque into a museum.
"Al-Fath surah will be recited and [Islamic] prayers will be prayed at Hagia Sophia as part of the conquest festival," President Erdoğan announced Thursday night on Turkish television.
Surah 48 from the Koran, also known as Al-Fath sura, begins with the verse: 'Indeed, We have given you, [O Muhammad], a clear conquest.' "It is a triumphal declaration of ownership over conquered territory," A. Belteshazzar, an Islamic Shariah expert told Church Militant. "There is no turning back for Erdoğan."
Seventy-three percent of Turkish citizens are in favor of transforming Istanbul's Hagia Sophia into a mosque according to an Areda Survey published on June 11. To the question: "Should Hagia Sophia be converted into a mosque and open to worship?" 22.4% answered "no" and only 4.3% said they did not have a firm opinion on the matter.
The proposal is triggering geo-political tremors with the United States calling on Turkey to maintain the "complex multi-religious history" of the UNESCO World Heritage site and Russian Orthodox Metropolitan Hilarion Alfeyev of Volokolamsk warning that any attempt to change the museum status of Hagia Sophia will lead to "violating fragile inter-confessional balances."
Erdoğan's inflammatory move is seen as a slap in the face for Pope Francis' Human Fraternity Declaration signed February 2019.
"The Human Fraternity Declaration proclaims of itself that 'it is a document that invites all persons who have faith in God and faith in human fraternity' ... to 'advance a culture of mutual respect in the awareness of the great divine grace that makes all human beings brothers and sisters,'" distinguished historian of Islam Robert Spencer told Church Militant.
"Pope Francis certainly respects Islam and Muslims, but that respect is not mutual and was never going to be mutual, as the Qur'an describes Christians who refuse to accept Islam — 'the unbelievers among the People of the Book' — as 'the most vile of created beings' (98:6)," Spencer noted.
"The Grand Imam of al-Azhar, the foremost authority in Sunni Islam, agreed to the Human Fraternity Declaration, but it could never and will never override what Muslims believe to be the dictates of divine revelation," he asserted, explaining how "the signal lack of any 'mutual respect' for Christians on the part of Sunni Muslims is epitomized in the Sunni Turkish President Erdoğan's efforts to turn the Hagia Sophia into a mosque."
The author of the bestselling The History of Jihad: From Muhammad to ISIS elaborated:
The Hagia Sophia was for nearly 1000 years the foremost cathedral in all of Christendom, and is still regarded as the most magnificent example of Byzantine architecture, and as an historical expression par excellence of the Orthodox Faith. If Erdoğan converts the Hagia Sophia into a mosque, Orthodox Christians and other Christians with knowledge of the historical significance of the Hagia Sophia will regard this as a tremendous insult to Christ, Christians, and Christianity.
"No one except the most willfully blind and ignorant could see it as a manifestation of the 'mutual respect' called for by the Human Fraternity Declaration," he stressed. "That Declaration was always a worthless exercise designed to silence Christian criticism of jihad activity and the Muslim persecution of Christians. Erdoğan is in the process of proving that anew."
In a Sunday statement attacking Erdoğan, Egypt's Dar al-Ifta, the central authority for issuing fatwas (religious rulings) led by Grand Mufti Shawki Allam, described the Ottoman seizure of Constantinople as an "occupation" instead of "conquest" — the latter authorized in Islamic jurisprudence.
"The issue of converting the Hagia Sophia to a mosque was raised decades ago, but it remained a tool and a propaganda weapon in the hands of various politicians in their campaigns to attract voters, especially the religious ones," the Dar al-Ifta statement said, accusing Erdoğan of using the conversion of Hagia Sophia into a mosque as "an electoral weapon."
On Monday, however, a corrected statement backtracked on labelling the historical event as occupation, and instead glorified it as "a great Islamic conquest."
"As for what is related to the conquest of Constantinople, it is a great Islamic conquest preached by the Prophet, may God's prayers and peace be upon him, and it was done by the great Ottoman Sufi Sultan Muhammad al-Fateh," the corrected version read.
Belteshazzar, Arabic author of The Mosque and Its Role in Society, told Church Militant that Egypt and Turkey were playing a game of "good cop/bad cop" and according to Islamic law the mosque once seized and declared as Islamic territory (waqf) could never be relinquished either for secular or, even worse, for Christian purposes.
"Don't forget Egypt's Grand Mufti Shawki Allam, President Erdoğan and Al-Zahar's Grand Imam Ahmed al-Tayyeb are all Sunni Muslims," he said. "Ironically, Pope Francis' dialogue partner Al-Tayyeb is based in Egypt at al-Azhar — the world's foremost Sunni centre of learning.
"If the Human Fraternity declaration means anything, now is the time for it to be put into practice. But it won't happen because of the Islamic theology of conquered territory," Belteshazzar added.
In early June, Erdoğan commissioned a comprehensive study on how to convert Hagia Sophia into a mosque, Turkish newspaper Hürriyet reported. Last week, the Turkish government celebrated the 567th anniversary of the Ottoman conquest of Istanbul with an Islamic prayer at Hagia Sophia.
In 2016, the government allowed the recitation of the Islamic adhan (call to prayer) inside the building and later assigned an imam to a small chamber where people have been allowed to pray since 1991. The adhan, is the categorical proclamation of Islam's supremacy over its forebears — Judaism and Christianity — and their territory.
In 2017, Turkey's Diyanet (Directorate of Religious Affairs), held a religious ceremony to celebrate Laylat al-Qadr, one of the holiest days in Islam, inside the museum.
"This church is a symbol of Byzantium and a symbol of Orthodoxy for millions of Christians all around the world, especially for Orthodox believers," Metropolitan Hilarion has insisted.
So far, Pope Francis has not intervened in the dispute in favor of Christians and the status quo of Hagia Sophia, despite the covenant signed with the leader of the Sunni Muslim world. In February, the pontiff also met Metropolitan Hilarion at the Vatican cementing relations with the Moscow Patriarchate.