New York Times warns Christian-Muslim rivalry could reignite over Hagia Sophia

The piece says the precious and rare mosaics could be at risk if the Hagia Sophia is converted into Mosque

In an op-ed article, the New York Times is sounding the alarm about the security of the unique historical and cultural mosaics of Hagia Sophia taking a clear stand against Turkish President Erdogan and his long-standing ambition to turn the UNESCO World Heritage Site into an Islamic Mosque.

In the piece entitled “Erdogan Talks of Making Hagia Sophia a Mosque Again, to International Dismay”, the author warns that the decision to turn the historic monument into an Islamic place of worship could lead to a resurgence of the rivalry between Islam and Christianity.

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Special reference is made to the temple’s mosaics, which depict various religious and historical figures such as Christ, the Virgin Mary, John the Baptist, Emperor Justinian I and Empress Zoe. As the depiction of any type of figures is considered idolatry under Islam, these precious mosaics had been covered for many years and were restored when Hagia Sophia was turned into a museum.

Since it was built in the sixth century, changing hands from empire to empire, Hagia Sophia has been a Byzantine cathedral, a mosque under the Ottomans and finally a museum, making it one of the world’s most potent symbols of Christian-Muslim rivalry and of Turkey’s more recent devotion to secularism.

Now President Recep Tayyip Erdogan is making moves to declare it a working mosque once more, fulfilling a dream for himself, his supporters and conservative Muslims far beyond Turkey’s shores — but threatening to set off an international furor.

The very idea of changing the monument’s status has escalated tensions with Turkey’s longtime rival, Greece; upset Christians around the world; and set off a chorus of dismay from political and religious leaders as diverse as Secretary of State Mike Pompeo and Patriarch Kirill of the Russian Orthodox Church.

Mr. Erdogan’s opponents say he has raised the issue of restoring Hagia Sophia as a mosque every time he has faced a political crisis, using it to stir supporters in his nationalist and conservative religious base.

But given the severity of the challenges Mr. Erdogan faces after 18 years at the helm of Turkish politics, there may be more reason than ever to take the talk seriously. Having lost Istanbul in local elections last year, the president has watched the standing of his party continue to slide in the polls as the Covid-19 pandemic has further undone a vulnerable economy.

On July 2, a Turkish administrative court ruled on whether to restore Hagia Sophia, or Ayasofya, its Turkish name, as a mosque, and revoke an 80-year old decree that declared it a museum under Turkey’s secular state. The ruling will be announced within two weeks, and then Mr. Erdogan is expected to make the final decision.

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