“The elections are approaching, and the idea of converting the church of Hagia Sophia into a mosque is a topic of great interest to a particular section of the population. Yet it is unimaginable that it could be turned into a mosque – despite the fact there have been changes to other secular aspects of the Turkish Republic that also seemed untouchable.”
Adapted by ACN Canada
The words are those of Father Alberto Fabio Ambrosio, a Dominican friar who has been in Istanbul for the past 10 years and one of the greatest Christian students of mystical Islam. He was speaking to the international Catholic pastoral charity Aid to the Church in Need (ACN) about rumours surrounding the possible return of the Basilica of Santa Sofia in Istanbul to a place of Islamic worship. Built from the year 532 onwards, this Byzantine basilica was turned into a mosque in 1543, and then later turned into a museum in 1935 by the first president and founder of the Republic of Turkey, Mustafa Kemal Ataturk.
What brought this issue to the top of the agenda was the recent declarations of the Vice Prime Minister, Bülent Arınc, who expressed himself in favour of reopening the Hagia Sophia to the Muslim faithful. “There is a widespread opinion”, Father Ambrosio explains, “that Arınc is close to resigning and that he wants to form a new political party. The Vice Prime Minister seems to be a Conservative and his declarations would appeal to the Islamic and nationalist section of the electorate which he could enlist to gain an electoral seat.”
Hence the idea of converting the ancient Byzantine basilica back into a mosque might simply be an electoral ploy, although two other churches, in Trabzon and Iznik, have already been turned into Islamic places of worship. “The museum of Hagia Sofia in Istanbul is visited by millions of tourists every year, and I believe that they would prefer above all to exploit its high symbolic importance. It is undoubtedly a striking fact, but we must not forget that in recent months journalists have been provisionally arrested in Turkey and that, following the protests in Gezi Park, laws have been passed under which it is sufficient merely to be found close to a demonstration, in order to end up in prison.”
The future of Santa Sofia needs in fact to be seen in the context of a series of recent measures and possible future provisions approved by the Turkish government that are seen by many as an Islamist change of course on the part of Prime Minister Erdogan. These include a strict law regulating the consumption of alcohol, the reintroduction of the freedom to wear the Islamic veil in the public offices and the possible future division of university residences into male and female sections. “It is clear that the decisions taken by this government are tending towards a more Muslim society; not necessary an Islamised one but Muslim in culture,” Father Ambrosio concedes.
Nonetheless, the Turkish leadership has never openly related such measures to a policy of a religious character but has preferred to present reasons of a juridical or public order nature in justification of them. It is also possible to view in the same light the education reform that has established the higher religious schools as equivalent to the state secondary schools. Formerly, someone attending a Koranic Institute was able to have access only to a limited number of university courses, whereas now even those living in areas without secondary state schools – as for example in some regions of Anatolia – and who instead studies in a religious institute, can now freely choose what course to study at university. Many people have interpreted this reform as a means of favouring the Imam Hatip Lisesi, or Islamic schools however. “It is true that they now have the possibility of studying at university; but it is a markedly religious opportunity.”
Following the recent months of internal disorder – exemplified by the protests in Gezi Park – Turkey is now looking towards the forthcoming elections in March 2014, which could bring about a major political shakeup. “It has always been the case that the instability of the country has caused the emergence of nationalist and religious tendencies, and Erdoğan might well soon be the face of the moderate wing.”