Questions abound as countdown begins to Turkey's Hagia Sophia’s mosque re-conversion

The decision by Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan earlier this month to re-convert Istanbul’s famous Hagia Sophia into a mosque continues to make international headlines. 

While the presidential decree revoking the 6th century site’s status as a museum has provoked international condemnation, the move has been met with joy by Turkey’s Islamists.

But a June survey by Metropoll polling company has revealed that many Turkish people are sceptical over the timing of the decision.

Some 43.8 percent of the 1,300 people surveyed in the poll said the move is an attempt to divert public attention from the country’s ailing economy. 

Only 29.5 percent of those surveyed said the goal of the decision was to simply re-convert the structure into a mosque, while 11.7 percent said the move was a tool to be used in calling for a snap election ahead of the scheduled polls in 2023.

Metropoll chairman Özer Sencar weighed in the survey results, saying the Hagia’s Sophia’s conversion would not to produce significant political gains for Erdoğan. 

"What really matters is that (Turkey’s) problems of financial hardship and unemployment are tackled,” he wrote on Twitter on July 10.

Turkey is faced with surging inflation, rising unemployment and plummeting economic output, and is increasingly struggling to attract foreign investment, as the country deals with the fallout coronavirus pandemic, just as it was recovering from a recession sparked by a currency crisis in the summer of 2018.

As the Hagia Sophia debate carries on around the world and at home, Turkey is preparing open its doors as a mosque for the first time in decades for Friday prayer on July 24.

All eyes are on the Religious Affairs Directorate (Diyanet), Turkey’s state-regulator of religious matters, to see what message the Friday sermon will carry.

Will it fail to mention anything about the founder of modern Turkey, Mustafa Kemal Atatürk, who signed off on the transformation of the Hagia Sophia into a museum in 1934?

Diyanet is often accused by Turkey’s secular circles of leaving Atatürk - an unpopular figure for many of country’s Islamists - out of its sermons.

With the highly anticipated re-opening of the Hagia Sophia as a mosque just days away, Turkey is also discussing the logistics of opening a site for prayers during a pandemic.

According to a schedule announced by Diyanet for July 24, social distancing measures will be in effect for the prayers that will be broadcast on hundreds of networks.

The space, which could normally host 3,000-4,000 people, will be allotted for roughly 500 “distinguished’’ guests.

Turkey’s Diyanet had banned congregational prayers in mosques in March - although limited mass prayers were resumed in May - and a move by Diyanet head Ali Erbaş and few other chosen officials to perform the Friday prayers that month in the Millet Mosque, located in the Presidential Complex in Ankara, led to discussions about elitism in Turkey’s religious circles.

Now Erdoğan is set to list the “chosen few” who will be gracing Friday’s prayers on site of his latest venue of victory.

Turkey’s main opposition party is not staying out of the Hagia Sophia developments.

The Republican People’s Party (CHP) presidential candidate for the 2018 elections, Muharrem İnce, created a stir by saying that he would participate in the upcoming Friday prayer at the Hagia Sophia if invited. 

CHP’s Istanbul chair Canan Kaftancığlu took a swipe at İnce when asked if she too would attend, saying, “Mr. İnce will attend on behalf of everyone else”.

Multiple statements have been issued by the authorities about what Diyanet plans to do regarding the Christian frescoes and mosaics at the site, as Islamic teachings forbid the depiction of living beings.

Suggestions include using a light or curtain system to cover the imagery.

Last week, Erdoğan assured his Russian counterpart Vladimir Putin in a phone call that open access to all visitors and the preservation of relics of the Hagia Sophia would be ensured.

Meanwhile, at home, the Turkish president has said the structure’s transformation into a museum was a mistake, which was now being rectified.

Erdoğan appears to be giving different messages to the West and Christians on the one hand, and the Islamic world on the other, and the upcoming days will reveal how the discourse around the Hagia Sophia will shape Turkey’s politics.

The opinions expressed in this column are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect those of Ahval.