Church conversions threatening cosmopolitan identity of Istanbul - the Conversation

The conversion of two centuries old Byzantine churches into mosques in Istanbul has raised concerns for the city’s Greek Orthdox community about the decay of the metropolis’ multi-layered history and cosmopolitan identity, the Conversation outlet said.

The transformation of the city’s iconic Hagia Sophia and Chora, which embodied Istanbul’s Byzantine and Ottoman pasts, implies a hierarchy prioritising the structures’ Islamic past over all other layers, it said.

In July, Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan announced the opening of the Hagia Sophia to Muslim worship after a top court ruled that the former seat of the Greek Orthodox church’s conversion to a museum by modern Turkey’s founding statesman was illegal.

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.

The following month, Turkey ordered the re-conversion of Istanbul’s Chora (Kariye) church, which has served as a museum since 1945, into a mosque and opened it to worship. Located in Istanbul’s Fatih district, the Church of the Holy Saviour in Chora was constructed as part of a monastery complex in the fourth century during the Byzantine era.

“There should not be any competition between civilisations, especially in a rich cultural city like Istanbul with a history of being an imperial capital over 1500 years,” the Conversation quoted Laki Vingas, the chairperson of the Association of Rum Foundations, as saying.

But the moves by Erdoğan reflects a rhetoric of conquest which alienates Istanbul’s Christian past, the article said, pointing to a speech by the Turkish president on July 10 during which he stressed how Hagia’ Sophia’s conversion into a mosque enlivens  “the spirit of conquest,” referring to the Ottoman conquest of the city in 1453.

Moreover, the head of Turkey’s top religious body, Ali Erbaş, delivered the reopened mosque’s first Friday sermon donning a sword, a gesture which arguably “ brands Turkey’s non-Muslims as re-conquered subjects and second-class citizens,’ ’the conversation said.

The conversions are acts of re-Islamisation or de-Westernisation signalling a “neo-Ottoman” orientation, which seeks to build an alternative national identity, which is fed by polarisation, according to Greek historian Foti Benlisoy.

Istanbul’s Greek community is as much a valuable part of the city’s cosmopolitan heritage as are Hagia Sophia and Chora, the Conversation said.

Throwing away the city’s multicultural legacy, it said, would only endanger its identity.