The news that Turkey’s President, Recep Tayip Erdogan, has recently authorised the handing over of the former Orthodox Cathedral, Haghia Sophia (“The Divine Wisdom”), in Istanbul (Constantinople) to Turkey’s Religious Affairs Presidency, is something to be deplored. The current building is the third Orthodox Cathedral on this site as its two predecessors were destroyed by fire during local riots and the present church was built by the Emperor Justinian between 532-537. Following the Ottoman conquest of Constantinople in 1453 the Cathedral, like many other Christian churches in lands conquered by Muslims, was converted into a mosque by Sultan Melmet II and renamed Aya Sofya Cami’i. It continued to serve as a mosque until 1932 after which in 1935 it was converted into a museum by the founder of the secular republic of Turkey, Mustafa Kemal Ataturk.
Although President Erdogan has denied wishing to impose Islamic values, by dishonestly saying he is committed to secularism, his action in this respect, as in many others, shows that he and the AK (Justice & Development) Party are actually strongly Islamacist. He is quoted as saying, “How dare these secularists deny us, pious Muslims, the liberty to pray at Hagia Sophia?” although for several years Muslim services have actually been conducted in the crypt of Haghia Sophia, despite the fact that the Sultan Ahmed Mosque – also known as the Blue Mosque – has stood adjacent to it for over four hundred years. In responding to criticisms Erdogan falsely claims that they directly target Turkey’s sovereign rights. “We are determined to continue to protect the rights of Muslims, our country’s majority faith, as well as members of all other faiths and religions” However, the opportunity for Christian services ever to be held in the building has never been available, despite there still being a Greek Orthodox Christian population in the city. In 1955 the Greek community of Istanbul numbered 67,550, but following a Pogrom orchestrated by Turkish authorities against the Greek community in September 1955, their number was dramatically reduced to only 48,000 and today, the Greek community now numbers only about 2,000 people. The Stockholm Center for Freedom’s 2018 “Human Rights Violations Report” highlighted the fact that Erdogan often spewed hate speeches against Christians, which “stigmatised millions of people in Turkey and around the world with his systematic and deliberate campaign of churning hostility against Christians.”