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=> Hagia Sophia caught between politics, history

Hagia Sophia caught between politics, history
Posted by Marcello (Guest) - Tuesday, June 10 2014, 18:31:05 (UTC)
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Hagia Sophia caught between politics, history
Posted by Author Maurice Kodeihsted June 8, 2014
Translator(s)Joelle El-Khoury
Original Article اقرا المقال الأصلي باللغة العربية

It seems that history, or at least parts of it, has left in its wake countless problems — hatred and feuds, among other things — which take shape as symbols that express them. The symbol turns into a warhorse of consecutive or separated rounds, depending on the circumstances.

Summary: Sophia into a mosque is a negative message to Christians in Turkey and abroad.

One of these symbols is the Hagia Sophia (Church of the Divine Wisdom) in Istanbul, whose current structure was built by the Eastern Roman Emperor Justinian the Great and completed in the year 537. For Christians, especially the Orthodox, it is an important church, whereas for the Turks and Muslims it is the symbol of the Muslim conquest and a sign of a historic victory that is still on the minds of many people, probably because of today’s misery.

During these days, the anniversary of the fall of Constantinople — the date that was set by Turkish Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan to reconvert the Hagia Sophia into a mosque — coincides with a call to the leaders of Islamic countries to pray there.

The Hagia Sophia — this great building — was a church for more than 1,000 years, and was the seat of the Ecumenical Patriarchate during that period, except under the Latin occupation of Constantinople (1204-1261) when the seat was moved to Nicaea. This was before the Ottoman Sultan Mehmet II (known as Mehmet the Conqueror) turned it into a mosque in 1453 after he took control and occupied the city. The Hagia Sophia remained a mosque until 1935, when the founder of modern Turkey decided to offer it as “a gift to mankind” by converting it into a museum.

In this context, it is necessary to recall some of the features of the final stage of the fragmentation of the Ottoman Empire, which can be dated from its defeat against Russia in the First Balkan War in 1878 to the Second Balkan War in 1913. This significantly redrew the demographic map of the empire, where the Turks and Sunni non-Turks receded toward Asia Minor.

Following the defeat of the Ottoman Empire in the World War I, and the partition of Anatolia under the Treaty of Sevres in 1920, a reaction came from the remnants of the Turkish forces under the leadership of Mustafa Kemal Ataturk. One of the outcomes of the conflict, which can be called a civil war, was the change in the balance of powers on the ground. This was reflected in the defeat of the Greeks, the withdrawal of European forces from Anatolia, the amendment of the Treaty of Sevres, the signing of the Treaty of Lausanne in 1923, the establishment of the modern state of Turkey and the population exchange between Greece and Turkey based upon religious identity. The Orthodox of Constantinople and Muslims of Eastern Thrace were exempt from this exchange, and the seat of the Ecumenical Patriarchate remained in Constantinople.

Thus, Ataturk inherited a geopolitical situation whereby Anatolia, the core of the former empire, remained under the sovereignty of Turkey, as well as a demographic situation that was more than comfortable, with Anatolia clean of non-Turks or non-Muslims after the Armenian genocide, the massacres against the Syrians and Assyrians, the defeat of the Greeks, the cleansing in their areas and the population exchange that practically ended 3,000 years of Hellenic presence in the Eyalet of Anatolia.

The period from 1915 to 1933 was tantamount to a "religious purge" that affected all the Christians of Anatolia. In addition, the period witnessed one of the largest property-seizing operations, resulting in a huge transfer of property from the hands of the Christian population who had been killed or displaced to the Muslim population who were refugees from the areas subject to the authority of the sultanate. The latter group formed a socioeconomic class that supported the new regime.

The establishment of the new republican system — which was desired by Ataturk and based on secularism — came as an imported functional tool in the hands of the state to repress conservative political, social, institutional and cultural Islamic forces, which were preventing the achievement of Ataturk and the political elite's goal. This new system was not a practical value that resulted from historical experience to put an end to the religious conflict — as was the case in Europe — and constitute a new social contract on a nonreligious basis to neutralize the public sphere to religious influence.

The decision by Ataturk to convert the building from a mosque to a museum came to block any future Greek demand to return the Hagia Sophia to its original function as an Orthodox church, and this established the dispute between the two countries.

The decision sparked widespread objections in Turkish society and among the ruling class, and the Hagia Sophia remained a symbolic fixture for political investment or to express a particular orientation.

For example, in 1953, on the 500th anniversary of the fall of Constantinople and during the era of Prime Minister Adnan Menderes (one of the founders of the Democratic Party, which opposed Ataturk's Republican People's Party), four large medallions were returned to the building. These medallions, which carry the names of the first four caliphs of Islam, had been hanging in the Hagia Sophia when it served as a mosque and had been removed during its conversion to a museum. Talk about reconverting it into a mosque remained a demand for a number of Islamic and nationalist parities and movements.

With the arrival of the Islamists to power via the Justice and Development Party (AKP) in 2002, an infringement on Kemalist symbols and foundations began. This included curbing the role of the army in politics, interfering in the work of the judiciary and introducing a set of reforms to school curricula, in addition to other issues that are more symbolic — albeit with practical value — such as the debate about the headscarf in universities and public institutions. Meanwhile, Prime Minister Erdogan proposed reconverting the Hagia Sophia into a mosque, and specified May 30, 2014 — the anniversary of the fall of Constantinople — as the date for executing his order. He also called on leaders of Islamic countries to pray at the place.

Transforming the Hagia Sophia in Istanbul into a mosque remains more complicated than other cases that have occurred and are currently occurring in secular Turkey without facing many hurdles. Complications include the reaction of the Turkish [public] itself to such a decision, as well as the available legal means, especially since the building is a very symbolic and sensitive issue. This is in addition to international reaction, in particular from Greece. The Greek foreign minister warned that such a move would provoke the feelings of millions of Orthodox Christians around the world.

The French philosopher and poet Paul Valery said, "History is the most dangerous product which the chemistry of the mind has concocted. Its properties are well-known. It produces dreams and drunkenness. It fills people with false memories … exacerbates old grievances, torments them in their repose. … It makes whole nations bitter, arrogant, insufferable and vainglorious. History justifies what it wants."

The decision to convert the Hagia Sophia into a mosque would send a very negative message, after less than a century has passed since Christian residents — including Armenians, Greeks, Syriacs and Assyrians — were uprooted. These residents constituted one-third of the population less than 100 years ago. It would be a message of stubbornness and a refusal to reconcile with the descendants of these people in Turkey, who are arrogantly referred to by Turks as "residue of the sword." It would also send a negative message to Christians throughout the world, replacing the current situation based on reconciliation with provocative boasting in an imperial style for which there remains no empire, aside from fatal comedy at times.

Beirut, Lebanon

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