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Turkey’s Long Tradition of Church Desecration

Persecution of Christians in Turkey: Dr. Anthony J. Limberakis, National Commander of the Order of Saint Andrew the Apostle, Archons of the Ecumenical Patriarchate, has said this regarding the conversion of Hagia Sophia to a mosque: “This unwise decision casts a shadow over the commitment of the government of Turkey to religious tolerance and religious freedom. The Turkish government’s decision is a deeply ill-advised act of memoricide that ignores Turkey’s rich Christian history and further threatens the religious freedom of the Ecumenical Patriarchate and the remaining Christians of that land. It was undertaken in defiance of the United States, Russia, France, Greece and many others. We urgently request the relevant world bodies to pressure the Turkish government to rescind this decision, and acknowledge and respect Hagia Sophia’s thousand years as a center of Christian prayer and worship.”

Read his full statement here.

For previous coverage of Hagia Sophia and the persecution of Christians in Turkey, see here.

“Turkey’s Long Tradition of Church Desecration,” by Uzay Bulut, The American Conservative, August 17, 2020:

The world’s once greatest cathedral is now a mosque. On July 10, Turkey’s President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan ordered the conversion of the nearly 1,500-year-old Hagia Sophia back into a mosque after a court annulled a 1934 presidential decree that made it a museum.

Erdoğan then joined thousands of Muslims for prayers inside the former Hagia Sophia Cathedral on July 24 for the first time after the historic building operated as a museum for more than eight decades. Turkey’s top religious authority, the Directorate of Religious Affairs (Diyanet), appointed imams and muezzins to lead the prayers.

Two green Ottoman flags have been placed inside Hagia Sophia. The flag represents Ottoman military conquests and the three white crescents on it symbolize the Ottoman occupation of Europe, Asia, and Africa. 

The head of the Diyanet, Professor Ali Erbaş, recited a sermon with a sword in his hand. Referring to Ottoman Sultan Mehmed Mohammed II, who invaded Constantinople in the fifteenth century, as the “conqueror”, Erbaş said: “Conqueror Sultan Mehmed Khan endowed this place [to the Hagia Sophia Foundation] so that it would remain a mosque until the Judgement Day. Those who violate what was endowed are cursed.”

Holding a sword in his own hand at Hagia Sophia, historian Mustafa Armağan explained what it meant:

In Ottoman practice and in the Islamic practice, the greatest mosque [church] of a conquered city was turned into a mosque of conquest. Hagia Sophia’s name is not [officially] the Mosque of Conquest but it is recognized as such. When the greatest church here was converted into a mosque, it became the Mosque of the Conquest. 

As this place was conquered with swords, the imam and khatib held swords in their hands as they went up to the pulpit. For [the sword] is the symbol of the conquest. It means, “We conquered this place via the sword and Islam dominates this place now as a right of the sword.” In the past, there was this practice in the great mosques of all conquered cities but it was forgotten in time. Some used a baton; others completely removed [the practice]. Hence, our Ottoman tradition is brought to life here today. In a city captured via the sword, the sermon is recited with a sword.

Armağan also referred to the green Ottoman flags placed in the Hagia Sophia and said: “The fact that these symbols are back means that the Ottoman Empire is back.”

Hagia Sophia (Greek for “Holy Wisdom”), was built in the sixth century (532-537 CE) in Constantinople under the direction of the emperor Justinian I of the Eastern Roman (Byzantine) Empire. It was the largest church in the world for centuries. 

The city of Constantinople was founded by emperor Constantine the Great in 284-337 CE. The city, according to historian Donald L. Wasson, became “the economic and cultural hub of the east and the center of both Greek classics and Christian ideals.” However, when Constantinople was invaded and looted by the Ottoman Turks in 1453, the city and Hagia Sophia became a site of massacre and abuse.

Historians (such as Steven Runciman and Donald M. Nicol) documented that during the Turkish invasion, those who sought shelter within the church were enslaved, the women were sexually assaulted and most of the elderly, the infirm, wounded and sick were slaughtered. The remainder, including young boys, were sold into slavery. The church was then converted into a mosque by Ottoman Sultan Mehmed Mohammed II. In 1930, Turkey changed the name of the city to Istanbul. Five years later, Hagia Sophia was made into a museum.

Hagia Sophia in Constantinople is not the only abused church in Turkey. According to Ersoy Soydan, assistant professor of communications at Kastamonu University and author of Churches and Monasteries in Turkey, nine former Hagia Sophia churches are either already being used as mosques or are in the process of being renovated for this purpose. 

The youngest of these, in the city of Trabzon, was reopened as a mosque on July 28. The Hagia Sophia in Trabzon was first converted into a mosque after the then-Greek city fell to the Ottomans in 1461. In 1964, it was turned into a museum. The Turkish media openly reported the abuse of the historical church:

The design of the museum has been changed and toilets and reinforced concrete structures have been built around the museum. Some parts of the walls have been painted green. The frescoes on the ceiling have been covered with wooden curtains. The mosaic on the floor has been hidden under a carpet. Mosaics and paintings on the walls that survived hundreds of years have been devastated. Nails have been pounded on the historical walls to hang curtains to create a separate section for women.

You can see photos of the new Hagia Sophia “mosque” in Trabzon by clicking here

Destruction or abuse of churches culminated during and after the Christian genocide in Ottoman Turkey, which targeted Armenians, Assyrians and Greeks. According to researchby professors of history Benny Morris and Dror Ze’evi, from 1894 to 1924 “some 4 million Christians were either killed or forcibly removed from Turkey and the adjacent territories of eastern Thrace, Urmia and the southern Caucasus.” 

Since then, churches have not only been destroyed or converted into other purposes, they have also become targets for treasure hunters. Author Raffi Bedrosyan explains: “Most of the churches left standing after 1915 fell victim to the attacks of the treasure hunters who dug under the foundations, hastening the collapse of the churches, as there is widespread belief that the clergy gets buried under the church floors along with valuable golden crosses.“

Turkey still violates places of worship, religious liberty and history unapologetically after wiping out indigenous Christians from the region. This demonstrates the Turkish government’s utter disregard for human life and cultural heritage….

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