Hagia Sophia Should Have Maintained Its Church Status

August 13, 2020
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I did not get carried away when, on July 10, the Turkish Council of State revoked the Turkish Government’s 1934 decree on assigning museum status to the Hagia Sophia, and how within the hour, President Recep Tayyip Erdogan announced that the famous monument shall be a mosque for the second time with the first prayers to be held on July 24. I felt utterly despondent seeing how politicians could disguise shameless self-aggrandisement in religious garb. Many got carried away. I refused to bite the bait!

A Tale of Two Cities

Two cities, Jerusalem and Constantinopole,  were under the Byzantine rule, and both were conquered, at different times in history, by Muslim caliphs. Jerusalem fell during the caliphate of Umar ibn al-Khattaab when he sent a host at the head of which were some of the ablest Muslim generals, the likes of Khalid ibn al-Waleed and Amr ibn al-Aas to route the Byzantines. Jerusalem was taken by 637 but Patriarch Sophronius, a representative of the Byzantine government, as well as a leader in the Christian Church, insisted that he would only surrender the city to Umar personally.

When this information reached the Commander of the Faithful, Umar ibn al-Khattaab left Madeenah and arrived in Jerusalem on a donkey and assisted by one servant. Sophronius received and marvelled at the leader of the Muslims who was dressed indistinguishably from his servant.

During a tour of the city which included the Church of the Holy Sepulchre, the time for prayer was due and Umar asked Sophronius to guide him to a place where he could offer his Sallah. Sophronius invited Umar to pray inside the Church, but Umar demurred. He insisted that if he offered his prayers there, later Muslims would use it as an excuse to convert the Church into a mosque. Umar, instead, prayed outside the Church, where a mosque – Masjid Umar (Umar’s Mosque) was later built.

Umar’s Treaty

Wherever the Muslims went in their expeditions the conquered cities witnessed the drafting and ratification of a treaty, detailing their rights and privileges, and the people of Jerusalem were not an exception. There was a treaty which was signed by both Umar and Patriarch Sophronius, along with of the generals of the Muslim armies. The text of the treaty read in part:

In the name of Allah, the Merciful, the Compassionate. This is the assurance of safety which the servant of Allah, Umar, the Commander of the Faithful, has given to the people of Jerusalem.

He has given them an assurance of safety for themselves, for their property, their churches, their crosses, the sick and healthy of the city and for all the rituals which belong to their religion.

Their churches will not be inhabited by Muslims and will not be destroyed. Neither they, nor the land on which they stand, nor their cross, nor their property will be damaged. They will not be forcibly converted.

Other sublime examples existed even before the above where, for instance, the Prophet, Sallallaahu Alaihi wa Sallam conveyed his unambiguous position on such matters, like his authorised letter of protection for the Sinai Monastery, (otherwise known as the Saint Catherine’s Monastery or the Sacred Monastery of the God-Trodden Mount Sinai) in Egypt. This letter of protection, known as the Ahtiname of Muhammad, or the Covenant or Testament of Muhammad upheld the principles of peace and tolerance between communities. The Ahtiname from the Prophet of Islam (to the Sinai Monastery) stated that “No one is allowed to plunder these Christians, or destroy or spoil any of their churches, or houses of worship, or take any of the things contained within these houses and bring it to the houses of Islam”

Aside from the above, the Prophet, Sallallaahu Alaihi wa Sallam was reported to have written to the Bishop of Bani Harith bin Ka’ab and the bishops of Najraan, their priests, monks and followers that they “keep all that is in their hands whether little or much, including their property, prayers, or monks, all under the protection of Allah Almighty and his Prophet Sallallaahu Alaihi was Sallam; no bishop is to be removed from his post, or monk from his monastery, or priest from his church.”

When Khalid bin al-Waleed conquered Damascus, he wrote to its inhabitants: “In the name of Allah, the Beneficent, the Merciful. This is given by Khalid bin al-Waleed to the people of Damascus. When the Muslims enter any territory, the people shall have safety for themselves, their property, their temples and the walls of their city, of which nothing shall be destroyed. They have this guarantee on behalf of Allah, the Messenger of Allah, the Caliph and the Muslims.”

The Prophet of Islam, Sallallaahu Alaihi wa Sallam and his followers were the proponents of tolerance, mutual respect and peaceful co-existence with members of other religions in the society. They practised this in every sense of the word as expounded in the above examples. Any action that could cause dissension and unrest in the society was forsaken for the greater good, that is, peace.

The second of the Two Cities was Constantinople (now Istanbul, Turkey), the home of Hagia Sophia which was “commissioned by the Byzantine Emperor Justinian I and designed by architects Anthemius of Tralles and Isidore of Miletus, was inaugurated in 537 and for centuries stood as the largest church in the Christian world, with a dome that soared more than 160 feet off the floor.

‘It was converted into a mosque in 1453, when the Ottomans conquered Istanbul, with minarets placed around its perimeter, its Byzantine mosaics covered in whitewash. Mustafa Kemal Ata­turk, the founder of the modern Turkish republic, transformed it into a museum in 1934.’

Sultan Mehmet II, if the purported Waqf documents were not forged, was not advised righty in converting the Church into a mosque in the absence of a precedent in the matter.

Erdogan’s Earlier Position on Hagia Sophia

Friday, March 15th 2020 cannot be easily forgotten, a day in which a lone gunman entered two mosques in Christchurch, New Zealand and killed a total of 51 people and injured 49 others.

That terrorist was Brenton Tarrant, a 28-year-old man who had live-streamed the first shooting on Facebook, and prior to the attack, had published an online manifesto in which he said among other ‘nonsense’: ‘we will kill you if you cross west of the [Bosporous] Strait, we will come to Istanbul and destroy all the mosques and minarets’.

Shortly after the New Zealand incident, President Erdogan spoke at an election rally where the crowd, angered by the terrorist’s manifesto, chanted “open Hagia Sophia” for prayers. In his response, Erdogan said people shouldn’t be deceived by Brenton’s manifesto that contained references to Turkey and Hagia Sophia museum as it was then known. “We don’t take action,” he said, “because the despicable [terrorist Brenton Tarrant] said so,” Erdogan told the crowd that there was no need to “open Hagia Sophia for prayers” since worshippers can scarcely fill the nearby Sultan Ahmet Mosque (or the Blue Mosque), “how can you fill the Hagia Sophia?” Referring to Turkey’s largest Camilica Mosque which was then opened for prayers, he said, “It is four or five times bigger than Hagia Sophia. Sixty-thousand people can pray in it at the same time.”

President Erdogan, however, stored opening of Hagia Sophia for prayers as the joker in the pack when he ended his address by saying, “We know how to take the step and we know the political language for it.”

Now is the Time

With the economy deteriorating, inflation rising to some 20%, a weaker Turkish lira and unemployment reaching about 15%, now is the time to play the joker – open Hagia Sophia for prayers!

Waning Popularity

President Erdogan’s AK Party won the 31 March local elections nationally but lost in the three biggest cities – Istanbul, the capital Ankara and Izmir.

Losing the Istanbul mayorship narrowly to the main opposition Republican People’s Party (CHP) was a bitter blow to Erdogan, who was the city’s mayor in the 1990s.

The AKP (Justice and Development Party) alleged voting irregularities in Istanbul, and controversially that result was annulled.

But a re-run of the city’s election on 23 June delivered a bigger victory for CHP candidate Ekrem Imamoglu, who was 9% ahead of his AKP rival. Thus, now is the time to manipulate people’s emotions and inveigle them into accepting this façade of love for Islam when in reality Ankara pursues sordid fraternalism with Tel Aviv and commits human rights violations at home against its own people.

Why will I be impressed with the recitation of the Qur’an from a president who closed down a Qur’an publishing company in his own country that used to produce millions of copies of the Glorious Qur’an for free distribution around the world? Erdogan falsely imputed the blame for an alleged coup attempt against his government to the Hizmet movement, the owners of the Qur’an publishing company.

The Phantom Coup

The dramatisation of the ‘2016 coup claimed at least 240 lives and, according to his officials, also came close to killing Mr Erdogan, who had been staying at the Aegean holiday resort of Marmaris.’ The design behind this well-orchestrated drama was the detention and sacking of hundreds of thousands of people especially those with any links with the Hizmet movement of Sheikh Fethullah Gulen – soldiers, journalists, academics, public servants and opposition politicians. Erdogan said the plot was engineered by Sheikh Gulen, a US-based Muslim scholar who denied the charge. Nevertheless, the Turkish government has declared the Hizmet movement a terrorist organisation and sought for Sheikh Fethullah’s extradition from the US to face trial but the US has said it will need to see evidence of Sheikh Gulen’s involvement first.

There were no answers!

Conversion of Mosques into Churches

Some Muslims got excited and exalted by the news of opening Hagia Sophia for prayers because there are numberless mosques around the world, (not least the Mosque of Cordoba in Spain), that non-Muslims converted to churches. When has the behaviour of non-Muslims become a beacon light to Muslims’ interaction with others? Whatever is the feeling of Muslims concerning mosques like Cordoba, vile as that conversion is, the Christians view Hagia Sophia in like manner. Hagia Sophia should have maintained its church status!

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