How the holiest cathedral is becoming a mosque

Imagine for a moment that Israel decided to convert the Al-Aqsa mosque in Jerusalem into a Jewish Synagogue.

And justified such action on the basis that the mosque sits on the holiest of places for Jews, the Temple Mount and that the area is subject to Jewish sovereignty.

The outcry of such an action from the woke Left and the Greens in concert with the Islamic world, Hamas, Iran, the Muslim Brotherhood, would be deafening, and probably very violent. Australia and other nations across the world would condemn Israel in the harshest terms.

And yet when President Erdogan of Turkey recently announced he will convert Hagia Sophia - the most important Christian cathedral for a thousand years - into a mosque there is subdued criticism from the world press and world governments. Although the Pope and Orthodox leaders around the world have expressed deep concern.

In announcing the decision, Erdogan said it was "Turkey's sovereign right" to decide for which purpose Hagia Sofia would be used. I wonder if he would extend that right to other nations if they were to convert mosques on their sovereign soil to Christian places of worship?

Hagia Sophia, in Greek, Agia Sophia, in Turkish Ayasofya and in Latin, Sancta Sophia was also called the Church of the Holy Wisdom and dedicated to the incarnation of the Logos (the word) in Christ. It was completed in 537AD as a Byzantine Church under the guidance of Roman emperor Justinian and Greek architects Anthemius and Isidorus.

For centuries the Byzantium civilisation, centred around Hagia Sophia in Constantinople, helped preserve classical science, art and philosophy from the ravages of the dark ages and made possible the Renaissance.

The building was an architectural marvel with the world's largest interior space and the first fully pendentive dome. It remained the largest cathedral for nearly a thousand years, until Seville Cathedral was completed in 1520 in Spain.

In 1453, after the fall of Constantinople, Mehmet the Conqueror renamed the city Istanbul and converted the building into a mosque. Four minarets were built to surround it. Many of the mosaics and frescoes in the building were destroyed but a large number depicting Jesus, Mary, Christian saints, and angels were simply plastered over.

In 1934, the Turkish leader Kemal Atatürk converted the building into a museum as part of his project of secularising Turkey and in this context was listed as a UNESCO World Heritage site.

During its time as a museum many of the plaster coverings of icons, frescoes and mosaics were uncovered through arduous restoration work to reveal their startling beauty. This contributed in large measure to the 3.7 million tourists who visit the building each year and the world began to see the site as a place that brings faiths together.

I had the privilege of visiting the site and was moved by the majesty of the building, its history and its artwork. Erdogan has said that the Christian artwork will not be covered over. But already plans have been made to cover up Christian elements during Muslim prayers.

Last month US Secretary of State Mike Pompeo said the landmark should remain a museum to serve as a bridge between faiths and cultures. His comments drew a rebuke from Turkey's foreign ministry.

Australia should lend its voice to condemning this latest move by Erdogan which grates against enlightenment and history. Australia should immediately withdraw its invitation for Erdogan to visit Australia in protest.

The visit was to coincide with Gallipoli celebrations and was proposed despite the comment Erdogan had made that anyone visiting Turkey with anti-Muslim sentiments would be sent back in coffins, "like their grandfathers were during the Gallipoli campaign."

Australia has been willing to invoke the Gallipoli spirit to bring our countries and our peoples closer despite political, cultural or religious differences. In declaring one of the most important Christian constructed buildings a mosque Erdogan has shown that he is unmoved by the building's established role as a bridge between faiths.

In so doing Erdogan tramples on the enlightenment project of the founders of modern Turkey who established the building as a museum and as a symbol of a secular Turkey.

Many enlightened Turks will find Erdogan's decision antithetical to a secular Turkey and as a setback to the project of incorporating Turkey in the European Union. It is seen as nothing more than an attempt to use religion for domestic political purposes. Many will ask whether praying in a converted Christian church is worth risking the destruction of a democratic secular future for Turkey as part of the EU.





Originally published as How the holiest cathedral is becoming a mosque

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