Turkey has decided to convert the iconic centuries-old Hagia Sopha landmark into the mosque. From July 24, the Muslim prayers will be held in the historic building for the first time since 1934 when it was converted into a museum.
The 1500-year-old building has vast historical significance for both Christians and Muslims. It was built as a cathedral by the Byzantine Empire and later converted into a mosque during the Ottoman conquest in 1453. It was declared as a museum by Attaturk – the founding father of modern Turkey – and listed a UNESCO world heritage site since 1934.
Religious services have been prohibited at the site ever since and devout Muslims have campaigned for been granted permission to pray there. Turkish President Erdogan also floated the idea to reconvert it into a mosque a few years back. The decision has been welcomed in most of the Islamic world but also stoked controversy elsewhere.
It is seen as a blatant attempt to alter the secular nature of Turkey and replace it with an Islamic identity. Erdogan has dismissed the unwarranted criticism despite global pressure to rethink the decision. He said Turkey provides freedom of religion and there are more than 400 churches and synagogues in the country.
The controversy arises due to the importance the structure has for Orthodox Christians. Pope Francis said he was pained to know about the decision and pressure was piling up from around the world on Turkey. This has also highlighted a clash between those who want Turkey to remain a secular country and the conservative religious base that supports Erdogan.
Since the past two decades. Erdogan has become a strongman who has a firm grip over his country. He has become a global leader who has challenged the most powerful nations. Today Hagia Sofia remains the most popular tourist site with more than three million visitors every year. By converting it into a mosque, Erdogan has attempted to appease his conservative base rather than provoking others.
Hagia Sophia will continue to remain popular and be visited by Muslims and non-Muslims alike. It is reminiscent of the history of Turkey. The site needs to be protected but it should be ensured that the religious rights and liberties are not being impeded.
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