by Adam Eliyahu Berkowitz | Jul 12, 2020 | Jerusalem

On Friday, a Turkish court annulled a 1934 ruling that turned the Hagia Sophia into a museum, effectively paving the way for President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan to fulfill his promise to turn the formerly Christian site into a mosque. “It was concluded that the settlement deed allocated it as a mosque and its use outside this character is not possible legally,” the Council of State, Turkey’s top administrative court, said in a ruling. “The cabinet decision in 1934 that ended its use as a mosque and defined it as a museum did not comply with laws.” The decision comes as the result of a 16-year court battle claiming the site was the property of Sultan Mehmet, the Ottoman leader who captured the city in 1453 and turned the already 900-year-old Byzantine church into a mosque.

Immediately after the court ruling, Erdogan signed a decree declaring Hagia Sophia was now open to Muslim worship and the first prayers inside could take place on July 24. Erdogan reiterated his claim that Hagia Sophia was originally constructed as a mosque. “The decision was taken to hand over the management of the Ayasofya Mosque … to the Religious Affairs Directorate and open it for worship,” the decision signed by Erdogan said, adding he added that “like all our mosques, the doors of Hagia Sophia will be wide open to locals and foreigners, Muslims and non-Muslims.”

An article by Seth Franzman in J-Post noted that Erdogan’s speech in Turkish announcing the Hagia Sophia decision on Friday was translated slightly differently to Arabic and English, “apparently as a way to hide part of Ankara’s full views on how it has linked Hagia Sophia to a wider agenda.” “In Arabic the speech says that turning Hagia Sophia into a mosque is part of the “return of freedom to al-Aqsa,” essentially meaning Israel should be ejected from controlling Jerusalem’s Old City where al-Aqsa is located.” “Turkey’s president linked the decision to reviving Islam from Bukhara in Uzbekistan to Andalusia in Spain.”

Dr.Mordechai Kedar,  a senior lecturer in the Department of Arabic at Bar-Ilan University, noted that Erdogan was adamant about returning the site to being used by Islam rather than just build a new and perhaps more spectacular mosque. “The Hagia Sophia represents the victorious Ottoman Empire and this is what Erdogan wants to return,” Dr. Kedar said. “Erdogan wants an expanded empire. We see that in his actions in Libya as well as other places.”

In an interview with Breaking Israel News in March, Dr. Kedar predicted that it was inevitable that the museum would be converted into a mosque.

“It is a huge mosque and even if it is not entirely being used that way today, that is the way the Turkish people see it. It was originally turned into a mosque to symbolize Islam’s victory of the Holy Roman Empire, that is to say, Christianity, and that is the way Islamic prayer in Hagia Sophia is seen today.” Dr. Kedar noted that it is an accepted and common practice in Islam to convert the holy sites of other religions into Muslim sites. The reason for this is the belief that Christianity, like Judaism, was nullified by Islam, making churches unnecessary. He noted that Anjem Choudry, a Pakistani Imam in London, openly calls for the conversion of Westminster Abbey, one of the most prominent churches in England, into a mosque. “Hagia Sophia was a huge victory for Islam. Just as Islam did to Hagia Sophia, that is what they intend to do to every church in the world,” Dr. Kedar said. “For the Muslims, that is the ultimate victory. Islam does not want to simply conquer or destroy the other religions. Their method, their goal, is to convert everything to the service of Allah. This is the main mission of Islam; to convert the entire world to Islam and the service of Allah, the people as well as the places.”

As Dr. Kedar pointed out, usurping the holy sites of other religions is a praiseworthy act in Islam but it takes on more ominous meaning in Turkey when aimed at Christianity. Christians have lived in the region that is modern-day Turkey since the first century when Christianity emerged with Constantinople as one of the major centers of Christianity. But between 1894 and 1924, three waves of violence swept across western Asia, targeting the region’s Christian minorities. Before the violence, Christians accounted for nearly 25% percent of the population. By 1924, the Armenians, Assyrians, and Greeks had been reduced to 2 percent. The total number of victims over the three decades may be more than 1 million. Today, Christians account for less than .5% of the population.

This persecution did not stop with the fall of the Ottoman Empire. In 1942, the Turkish state taxed the non-Muslim minorities with high rates. It deported those who were not able to pay taxes to forced labor camps in eastern Turkey. This aspect of the recent Turkish action at Hagia Sophia was expressed in a call by the Jerusalemite Initiative for a protest rally in front of the Turkish Consulate on Monday. Amit Barak, one of the initiators of the Jerusalemite Initiative, an organization with the stated goal of integrating Arabic-speaking Christians into the IDF and the Israeli Society, helped organize the protest after being approached by many Israeli Christians who were deeply concerned about the events in Turkey. “The status quo of Hagia Sophia was as a museum and that seemed to be acceptable to everyone. There were no calls by Christians to return it to serving as a church.” “This was clearly an attempt by Erdogan to return Turkey to ithye glory days of the Ottoman Empire. This necessarily  includes Israel and, as such, Turkey has been trying to increase its influence among the Muslims in Jerusalem.”

Barak noted that Turkey allows Hamas to use its country as a base of operations. Last week, the Israeli police presented evidence to the Magistrate’s Court that Hamas was using Waqf facilities on the Temple Mount, perhaps due to Turkey’s influence. “This move by Erdogan is a threat to Christians in the region and around the world, Jews in Israel around the world, and it also is an increase in tensions in tensions within the Muslims world. Everything Erdogan is doing is focused on creating more conflict.”

The US came out with a statement expressing “disappointment” in the development. “We are disappointed by the decision by the government of Turkey to change the status of the Hagia Sophia,” State Department spokeswoman Morgan Ortagus said. “We understand the Turkish government remains committed to maintaining access to the Hagia Sophia for all visitors, and look forward to hearing its plans for continued stewardship of the Hagia Sophia to ensure it remains accessible without impediment for all,” she said on Friday.

The United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organisation (UNESCO) released a statement on Friday saying its world heritage committee would review Hagia Sophia’s status.  “It is regrettable that the Turkish decision was not the subject of dialogue nor notification beforehand,” the statement said. “UNESCO calls on the Turkish authorities to open a dialogue without delay in order to avoid a step back from the universal value of this exceptional heritage whose preservation will be reviewed by the World Heritage Committee in its next session.” The United Nations agency said the decision raised questions about the impact on its universal value as a site of importance transcending borders and generations, which is necessary to be included on its coveted list of World Heritage sites. Countries must notify the UN’s cultural body of any changes in the status of a site, triggering a review by its heritage committee, it said in a statement.

Hagia Sophia,  meaning “Divine Wisdom” in Greek, was the third church of the same name to occupy the site. The current structure was built as the Christian cathedral church of Constantinople between 532 and 537 on the orders of the Roman emperor Justinian I. It remained the world’s largest cathedral for nearly a thousand years until Seville Cathedral was completed in 1520. In 1204, it was converted by the Fourth Crusaders to a Roman Catholic cathedral under the Latin Empire, before being restored to the Eastern Orthodox Church upon the return of the Byzantine Empire in 1261. After the Fall of Constantinople to the Ottoman Empire in 1453, it was converted to a mosque. As part of his reforms to modernize and moderate the Islamist extremism in the country, the first Turkish President and founder of the Republic of Turkey, Mustafa Kemal Atatürk, transformed the building into a museum in 1935. Use of the complex as a place of worship, mosque or church, was strictly prohibited This changed under the rule of Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan , formerly the mayor of Istanbul. In 2006, Erdogan’s government allowed the allocation of a small room in the museum complex to be used as a prayer room for Christian and Muslim museum staff.  In 2013, the muezzin was once again heard from the minarets of Hagia Sophia and in 2016, Muslim prayers were held again for the first time in 85 years.