Istanbul, Hagia Sophia at night

Hagia Sophia’s future strains Turkey’s political agenda

Government and opposition are engaged in a political debate on whether Hagia Sophia should continue to be a museum, whether it should return to being a mosque, or whether it can be a museum and a place of worship at the same time.

The renewed political debate on the reopening of worship or the conversion of the Hagia Sophia museum into a mosque has once again monopolised Turkey’s political agenda, further straining the tone and anger among the parties, which already ended this week in a fistfight in the parliament.

From the main opposition party, the kemalist CHP, the deputy İbrahim Kaboğlu insisted that the common cultural heritage must remain a museum, and cited as examples that Hagia Sophia, the Topkapı Palace and the Sultanahmet Mosque (Blue Mosque) should be museums.

“The Topkapı Palace should be preserved as a museum, Hagia Sophia should be preserved as a museum, and even Sultanahmet (mosque) should be a museum, because they are a common heritage of humanity,” Kaboğlu said this week before parliament, accusing the AKP of “using the judiciary as a tool” by bringing the question of the use of Hagia Sophia before the State Council, the highest administrative body in Turkey.

AKP accuses opposition of disrespect for religious values

However, the words of the CHP deputy about an alleged conversion of the famous Blue Mosque into a museum sparked numerous criticisms, and Kaboğlu was subsequently forced to correct his statements, claiming to the Turkish press that he had never spoken of converting the mosque into a museum but to give it a vision “from a more universal perspective”.

From the AKP, his spokesman and former Minister of Culture Ömer Çelik nonetheless accused Kaboğlu of disrespecting Turkey’s religious values ​​and culture for his proposal to turn Sultanahmet into a museum. “We strongly condemn this mentality,” Çelik said, assuring that the CHP uses the same discourse as the “enemy countries of Turkey.”

“Turkey has for many years reinforced respect for places of prayer for all religions. The CHP is committing all kinds of disrespect in parliament for this country,” said AKP spokesman.

Opposition accuses AKP of not being honest about Hagia Sophia’s conversion

From the also opposition party İYİ Parti -CHP’s electoral ally- its leader Meral Akşener directly accused Turkish President and AKP leader Recep Tayyip Erdoğan of creating “artificial crises” to divert public attention from economic problems, even claiming that neither the AKP nor Erdoğan actually intend to turn Hagia Sophia into a mosque.

“Hagia Sophia is an example of this. As soon as (in the AKP) they have had problems in the last 18 years, they have brought up the issue of Hagia Sophia,” Akşener said in a speech to deputies from her party. To demonstrate this, the president of the İYİ Parti recalled that her party had presented a motion to study the reinstatement of cult in Hagia Sophia, to test the AKP’s sincerity on this issue.

The AKP voted against. The MHP (AKP’s electoral ally) and the (Kurdish nationalist) HDP abstained, and our motion was rejected,” Akşener concluded, insisting that this entire debate is nothing more than smoke “that Erdoğan’s party uses whenever it needs it”.

Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan has been referring to the issue in recent days saying that his government will make the relevant decision on the future of Hagia Sophia once the State Council has pronounced; it must decide whether the government decree that in 1934 -under the presidency of Kemal Atatürk– established the conversion of Hagia Sophia -which had functioned as a mosque since the conquest of Constantinople in 1453– into a museum, can be annulled.

The third option: open Hagia Sophia to worship but keeping it as a museum

For his part in a televised interview, Turkish Foreign Minister Mevlüt Çavuşoğlu recalled that the status of Hagia Sophia is not an international issue, but an internal matter of Turkey, while responding to Greece that Athens -which has recently criticised the recitation of the Koran in Hagia Sophia- is not in a position to give lessons on freedom and respect for religions, due to the discriminatory treatment it gives to the Turkish-Muslim minority in Western Thrace.

Several associations in Turkey have spent years calling for Hagia Sophia to be converted into a mosque, although until now Erdoğan had sidestepped the issue. The intention of the AKP and Erdoğan seems to be to wait for the Turkish State Council to speak on July 2. Depending on its verdict, there are three options on the table for the future of Hagia Sophia: maintain its current status as a museum, or reopen Hagia Sophia as a mosque.

A third option would be to maintain its status as a museum, but at the same time authorise its religious use as has already been done with Christian buildings that had been functioning as museums, such as the Byzantine monastery of Sümela. Everything points to the fact that this option, which would please religious groups and at the same time allow the tourist use of Hagia Sophia -one of the most visited places by tourists in Turke – if the favourite of the Turkish government.