Turkey’s President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan is back in the news again. This time it’s because he’s considering turning the Hagia Sophia (Αγία Σοφία) into an Islamic Centre.1
On the 23rd March, the associated press reported, there have been ‘increasing calls for the Turkish government to convert the symbolic structure back into a mosque, especially in the wake of reports that the gunman who killed Muslim worshippers in New Zealand left a manifesto saying the Hagia Sophia should be “free of minarets.”
CBN news confirmed that the historic Hagia Sophia museum (the Church of Holy Wisdom), ‘which was previously a Christian (Byzantium) cathedral and a special place of worship for Greek Orthodox Christians, is planned to be turned into an enormous Islamic centre’ by its Turkish caretakers. CBN also speculated that the timing of the decision was directly linked to the United States controversial recognition of Israel’s annexation of the Golan Heights.
This drew condemnation from Greek foreign minister, George Katrougalos said:
It is not only a great temple of Christendom — the largest for many centuries — it also belongs to humanity. It has been recognized by UNESCO as part of our global cultural heritage. So any questioning of this status is not just an insult to the sentiments of Christians; it is an insult to the international community and international law.
News of Erdoğan’s latest plan shouldn’t come as a shock. Since 2016, examples of his authoritarian and vindictive tendencies have continued to pile up. All of which include, gaoling journalists who show opposition, to threatening churches, threatening the citizens of an entire nation, and weaponising tragedies, by using them in propaganda for political gain.
Should Erdoğan decide to turn the Hagia Sophia into a political whip, against America, Israel and Christians, out of retaliation for the Golan Heights, and the horrific tragedy in New Zealand, it’ll be hypocritical.
Here’s why: Turkey is an illegal occupier of Byzantine land, including Northern Cyprus. It’s hypocritical for him to rage at Israel, alleging illegal occupation and annexation, when his own country is still doing the exact same thing.
Cyprus has a rich, complex and turbulent history. After the fall of the Roman Empire, Cyprus became part of Byzantium. When Byzantium fell, Cyprus came under the rule of the Venetians. This lasted until 1571, when Cyprus was subsumed into the Ottoman Empire, as a result of the Venetian-Ottoman wars, and the persistent Islamic militant expansionist policies,2 as carried out by Mehmed II3 “the Conqueror” in 1454, which led to the fall of Constantinople (and subsequently Byzantium); including Suleiman “the Magnificent” and his almost successful quest to conquer Europe. Beginning with the Siege of Vienna in 1529, and ending4 with the Ottoman defeat in the Battle of Vienna on September 11-12, 1683.
Ottoman rule ended when Britain took up Cyprus in the late 1900s, giving Cyprus their independence in 1960. (Britannica)
Cyprus independence lasted until the early 1970s when Turkish troops landed in the north. According to BBC’s Cyprus profile, Turkish occupation of the north was triggered by ‘its response to a military coup [on the island] which was backed by the Greek government in 1974.’5
As a consequence, the island was split in two. The north came under Turkish rule; known as the Turkish Republic of Northern Cyprus. The South became the Republic of Cyprus. The Government in the south is internationally-recognized, the North isn’t. To be fair the North is open to discussion about reunification, but any quick internet search will prove that reunification is an unresolved and controversial topic.
Northern Cyprus is of importance when legitimizing any Turkish criticisms against Israel about the Golan Heights. It may seem hyperbolic, but the same goes for Constantinople (now Istanbul) and the living descendants of Byzantium.
The precedents are already there. If the Free Palestine movement and B.D.S holds legitimacy; if the reparations-for-slavery movement within the U.S holds legitimacy; if “invasion day” and banning all celebrations of Australian nationalism, such as Australia Day, holds legitimacy, so should any (pro-Greece) Free Constantinople and Free Northern Cyprus movements that might arise.
The Hagia Sophia is not a punching bag. If Erdoğan wants to use this old Byzantine church as one, in order to send a message to Christians and the West; then I don’t see how he would be able to ethically justify any military action against Israel, if they decided to follow his example, and turn the Dome of the Rock into the third temple.
- (Apparently, Erdoğan thinks that the best way to heal wounds created by the New Zealand mosque shootings is to slap Christians in the face.)
- ‘Many Muslims considered Suleiman a religious leader as well as a political ruler’ (see History.com)
- ‘The chief leader, known as the Sultan, was given absolute religious and political authority over his people.’ (see History.com)
- General consensus is that this loss marked a rethink within the Ottoman hierarchy and thus a change in the long wars between the Ottoman’s and European states.
- BBC.com, 12th November 2018 Cyprus Country profile, sourced 30th March 2019