Erdogan’s Hagia Sophia conversion shows ‘conqueror mentality’: Christian Archbishop

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The decision by Turkey’s President Recep Tayyip Erdogan to convert the Hagia Sophia back into a mosque signals intolerance to all Turkey’s minorities, according to the head of the Greek Orthodox Church in the US.

“When the state endorses the mentality of the conqueror, saying that ‘it’s my conquered right to have Hagia Sophia as a mosque’ - then this sends the wrong signal to all minorities,” said Archbishop Elpidophoros in an interview with Al Arabiya English.

Elpidophoros, a Turkish citizen who grew up in Istanbul, said there is a “longstanding trend by President Erdogan” to emphasize Turkey’s Ottoman past, which now includes reversing the “tradition of maintaining the Hagia Sophia as a monument for all Turkish citizens, and indeed the whole world.”

Hagia Sophia’s history

The Hagia Sophia was originally built as a church in the sixth century but was converted into a mosque nearly 1,000 years later during the Ottoman conquest of the city Constantinople – now known as Istanbul – in 1453.

The building has operated as a museum since 1935 following the founding of the secular Turkish Republic.

Hagia Sophia is “symbolically quite significant to all Orthodox Christians” and its architecture and artwork are world renowned, according to Robert Nelson, a professor at Yale University.

“It is my point of view that Hagia Sophia should remain a museum,” said Nelson in an interview with Al Arabiya English, adding that Erdogan’s announcement of converting it to a mosque was purely political.

“From Erdogan’s point of view, this symbolic gesture will win him a lot of votes,” Nelson said.

Erdogan uses Hagia Sophia to gain domestic support

Erdogan’s policies have led to the worst economic crisis in Turkish history, according to former Turkish parliament member Aykan Erdemir, who said the financial situation has caused even die-hard supporters to question their loyalties to the president.

“The Turkish president hopes that Hagia Sophia’s conversion will create a rally-round-the-flag effect and provide him with some legitimacy,” said Erdemir, who is senior director of the Turkey Program at the US thinktank Foundation for the Defense of Democracies, in an interview with Al Arabiya English.

Although Erdogan is not up for re-election until 2023, his political opponents have recently threatened his hold on power. Last month former Turkish Prime Minister Ahmet Davutoglu said he was ready to cooperate with opposition parties to stand against Erdogan’s ruling Justice and Development Party (AKP).

Since then, Erdogan ordered the shutdown of Sehir University in Istanbul, whose founders included Davutoglu.

Erdogan is now feeling threatened by increasing opposition to him, according to Henri Barkey, a fellow for Middle East studies at the Council on Foreign Relations.

Erdogan’s rise to power in Turkey has emphasized political Islam, according to Nelson, who said the conversion of the Hagia Sophia and other historical churches in the country into mosques is part of the Turkish president’s playbook to win public support.

Christian history in Turkey

Experts have warned that the Hagia Sophia is part of a wider trend in which Turkey’s Christian minorities face increased repression.

According to Nelson, Christian Byzantine heritage is “systematically repressed.” Three other famous Christian churches in Turkey have been converted into mosques in recent years: the Hagia Sophia cathedral in Iznik, the Hagia Sophia Church in Trabzon, and the Church of Chora in Istanbul.

“The Christians in the country have largely left. There is little sentiment in Turkey to appreciate minorities,” Nelson said.

One century ago Christians made up 20 percent of Turkey’s population. Now Christians make up just 0.2 percent, according to the BBC.

In Turkey, Christians don’t have the same opportunities and privileges as Muslims, according to Archbishop Elpidophoros.

“Christians still struggle with the prejudices against them from the past…the reimagining of the days of the conquest is not constructive in the modern world,” he said.

Erdogan’s latest decision “indicates a dangerous path” of repressing Turkey’s diverse history and communities, according to Elpidophoros.

“The deeper concern now is what does the re-conversion of Hagia Sophia signal for the future of all minorities in Turkey,” he said.

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