Hagia Sophia's unique history should not be politicised - analyst

Istanbul’s Hagia Sophia museum has a unique history that should not be politicised, a Christian Turkish analyst told NBC.

On Friday, the Council of State, Turkey’s highest administrative court, delayed a decision on whether to accept President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan’s request to turn the Hagia Sophia museum into a mosque. A decision is expected within two weeks.

“It captures a unique history, why pull that into politics?” Ziya Meral, senior associate fellow at the London-based Royal United Services Institute and a member of Turkey’s Christian community, told NBC news in an interview. “Does this actually add something?”

The Hagia Sophia, originally built as a Byzantine cathedral in 537, was turned into a mosque following the Ottoman conquest of Istanbul on May 29, 1453, and then became a museum in 1935 under Mustafa Kemal Atatürk’s presidency. Yet it is now, again, one of the most contested religious buildings in the world.

Although much more populous in the past, especially before the 20th century’s wars, expulsions and migrations, Turkey’s Christian community today has around 100,000 members. Meral said that turning the Hagia Sophia into a mosque and allowing only Muslims to pray would be exclusionary. He said it is the building’s blend of its Christian roots and Islamic scripture that holds such meaning for him.

“Whenever I went into Hagia Sophia, I always felt like I was stepping into history or a heritage in this land that I related to,” Meral told NBC. “But I’m also stepping into a synthetism of culture that I carry within my body, within my life habits, within my world view, that somehow that sacred space brings it all together.”

Onur Erim, a Muslim Turk who heads a consulting firm in Istanbul, supports bringing Muslim prayers back into Hagia Sophia and said he would go to pray there himself.

“When you conquer some place … that’s it, you get all the rights to it,” Erim told NBC.

“To me, opening up the Hagia Sophia mosque is a big issue. It goes beyond the (ruling) AK Party, it goes beyond Erdoğan, it goes beyond any party in Turkey or any kind of political viewpoint.”

But Meral said "there's nothing for Turks to prove about the strength of their country, the strength of their defence, their military and their position in the region.”

Berk Esen, an assistant professor of international relations at Bilkent University in Ankara, told NBC that the debate distracts attention from more pressing concerns for many Turks, such as rising unemployment and a faltering economy during a pandemic.

Esen argued that, while the move could also allow Erdoğan to build on his populist, conservative image, it would not gain him many voters.

Erdoğan is “increasingly coming across as a leader who’s out of touch with contemporary times, with contemporary issues,” Esen told NBC.

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