Stop instrumentalising common symbols, says Davutoğlu over Hagia Sophia dispute

The former prime minister of Turkey and leader of the newly established opposition Future Party, Ahmet Davutoğlu, on Monday slammed the government for reviving old discussions on turning Hagia Sophia back into a mosque.

“Stop treating our sacred and common symbols as a get-out-of-jail-free card whenever you are stuck,” T24 news site quoted Ahmet Davutoğlu as saying. “The Hagia Sofia is not a tool in your hands or a bargaining chip.”

The sixth century structure, originally built as a Byzantine cathedral in and turned into a mosque after Istanbul’s conquest by the Ottomans in 1453, has been serving as a museum since 1935.

The Future Party leader said every government for decades had tried to instrumentalise a sacred space or a common value when it lost its touch with the people.

“You may see it as a bargaining chip, but Hagia Sofia is the symbol of (Istanbul’s) conquest for us, first and foremost,” said Davutoğlu, who founded the Future Party in December following his fallout with the ruling Islamist Justice and Development Party.

A decades-long dispute over turning the museum into a mosque, which would require approval from UNESCO as an important world heritage site, was revived in late May as the May 29 anniversary neared for Istanbul’s conquest, the namesake for Ottoman Sultan Mehmet the Conqueror.

Officials from Turkey’s Religious Affairs Directorate recited a Qur’anic chapter, “The Conquest, ” inside the Hagia Sofia on May 29, a move the Greek Foreign Ministry called “an affront to the religious sentiment of Christians throughout the world.”
“Fools who seek to revive the Byzantine (Empire) will get nowhere,” Devlet Bahçeli, leader of the ultra-nationalist MHP and Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan’s junior coalition partner, said on Monday.

“The sounds of prayer will rise from Hagia Sofia, Allah willing, not church bells,” Bahçeli said.

On Friday, Erdoğan in a cabinet meeting said Hagia Sofia could still be visited by tourists, like other mosques in Istanbul’s old city, and ordered ministers to prepare proposals, Hürriyet newspaper reported. His ruling denied the claims.

Turkish historian İlber Ortaylı has also weighed in on the debate, saying during a television interview last week that the instrumentalisation of the Haghia Sophia would be dangerous.

Hagia Sofia is partially open to worship, Ortaylı said, noting that the mosque portion of the prayer broadcasts the call for Friday prayers.

The cathedral's bells, which were not part of the original construction and were installed in a nearby tower in the 13th century, had been removed by Sultan Mehmet upon the conquest and haven't been functional in centuries.

“This is not a toy,” the historian said. “We must obey the Republic’s 1934 decision.”