‘Bad news’ for Turkey’s marginalized Christians

Author: Demetrios Ioannou

Publication Date: 8/5/2020

Source: Politico

For Turkey's Christians, the country's decision to reconvert the Hagia Sophia into a mosque represents yet another blow to their already marginalized community.

Last month, Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan declared that the Istanbul monument — which had been the Christian world's largest church for nearly a millennium before becoming a mosque in 1453 and a museum in 1935 — would once again be a Muslim place of worship. The Hagia Sophia subsequently reopened for prayer with a grand ceremony on July 24.

The move didn't come as a surprise to Minas Vasiliadis, the owner of Istanbul's only Greek-language newspaper, Apoyevmatini. "The issue of Hagia Sophia is not something new," he noted. "It was brought up often by officials as well as with articles in the newspapers. But at the end, it always disappeared."

In early July, however, a Turkish court annulled the law that made the Hagia Sophia a museum amid growing calls for its reconversion, allowing Erdoğan to decree the site a mosque. The decision prompted condemnation from many of Turkey's Western allies and Orthodox Christians around the globe.

Turkey's Christians took a more cautious approach, with few speaking out. The Armenian patriarch of Istanbul, for example, in June backed the reopening of the Hagia Sophia for worship — though he suggested giving both Christians and Muslims a space to pray.

Vasiliadis, too, chose his words with care. “There is a vibe [among] the majority of the people who applaud this decision [to reconvert the Hagia Sophia] that makes the Christians who live in the city be extra careful on what they say, so they won't be misunderstood," he said.

Ecumenical Patriarch Bartholomew, leader of the world's Orthodox Christians — whose official title remains Bartholomew I of Constantinople — warned ahead of Turkey's decision that the conversion would "turn millions of Christians from around the world against Islam."

Yet Christians in Turkey fear the opposite is more likely.

“There is an Islamist and nationalist atmosphere that makes it uncomfortable for Christians in Turkey. I fear this [conversion] might cause tensions, although today is not harder than it was a hundred years ago," said Yetvart Danzikyan, the editor-in-chief of Istanbul's Armenian newspaper Agos.

The Hagia Sophia decision, he said, was only the latest "step of nationalism" by Turkey's conservative government. "All Christian minorities and seculars are unhappy and feel fear. Some younger Christians are thinking of leaving Turkey and moving to Western countries," he added.

Already, their numbers are constantly dwindling.

In 1914, Christians still made up some 20 percent of the population of what today is Turkey, but a series of massacres, deportations and pogroms in the first half of the 20th century — including the 1915 Armenian genocide, in which as many as 1.5 million are thought to have died, and the 1923 Greek-Turkish population exchange — saw their numbers decline sharply. (Ankara denies that a genocide took place.)

Today, there are believed to be just around 100,000 left in the country of 82 million, among them Greek Orthodox, Armenian and Syriac Christians, as well as Catholic and Protestant communities.

In Istanbul, the Greek Orthodox community now numbers no more than 600 families. In the past 15 years, Vasiliadis said, his newspaper has run far more death notices than announcements of baptisms.

In the domestic debate, the feelings of the country's Christians have barely featured, with most critics focusing on what the conversion means for Turkey's constitutionally mandated secularism. After all, the Hagia Sophia was converted into a museum by none other than Mustafa Kemal Atatürk, the Turkish republic's secularist founder.

Few if any advocates of conversion believe Christians have a claim to the Hagia Sophia, which became a mosque when the Ottomans conquered Byzantine Constantinople.

“If Christians want the frescos or icons or other things, they may take them. There could even be an auction to be sold to the people who see them as valuable," said Emre Çelik, a 34-year-old activist who has organized protests in favor of reopening the Hagia Sophia as a mosque for the past few years. (Curtains now cover the Hagia Sophia's precious Christian iconography during prayer times.)

Çelik, whose WhatsApp profile picture is an image of the Hagia Sophia breaking out of chains, is happy — as is the majority of Turks: A poll conducted last month found that 60 percent of respondents were in favor of reconverting the monument into a mosque.

"I think that the Orthodox community are the only ones who disagree," he said, "but generally the other Christians don’t pay much attention on this issue and see it as an internal issue of Turkey. It is not possible to make everybody happy with a decision."

Danzikyan, the editor, disagreed.

“This is not bad news only for Christians, but this is bad news for the world,” he said. “I always [saw] Hagia Sophia as world heritage; I always thought that this belongs to all the world, not only Christians or Muslims. I feel pain that we lost this world heritage."

Link: https://www.politico.com/news/2020/08/05/turkey-christians-hagia-sophia-392125

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