On July 24, thousands of muslims, including Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan, flocked to the Hagia Sophia in the historic heart of Istanbul, for the first official Muslim prayers held at the site in 86 years.
Turkish media and the government present the decision to turn the UNESCO Heritage site into a mosque as a ‘big personal victory’ of Erdogan. According to them, the mosque will mark the new symbol of the growing Turkish influence in the Middle East and the Islamic world in general.
President Erdoğan visits Hagia Sophia Grand Mosque pic.twitter.com/HopOSuhGsL
— Turkish Presidency (@trpresidency) July 23, 2020
According to Ali Yerlikaya, the Governor of Istanbul, this first prayer session will last 24 hours, until 10:00 AM Saturday morning. Traffic was blocked around Hagia Sophia from 10:00 PM last night in preparation for today’s event. Separate prayer areas for men and women were set up in the courtyard of the iconic UNESCO Heritage site.
The remaining Christian frescoes are covered by curtains during the Muslim prayers. Turkish soruces also reported that there is an idea to cover them with special lighting and lasers in the future.
Thee Hagia Sophia was initially built in 537 as a cathedral in the Byzantine Empire, before being seized by the Ottoman Empire 900 years later and converted into a mosque until 1934, when it became a museum. In 2020, it once again became a mosque.
Authorities say the site will remain open to all visitors despite its renewed status as a mosque, and that its Christian part would be protected. However, the move already caused a wide criticism on the international level, and inside the Christian world. In this light the interesting fact is that as most of local Orthodox Churches publicly condemn the Turkish decision, the Ecumenical Patriarchate of Constantinople, which theoretically should be the affected party because this happened in the country where it’s based, limited its response to a few relatively soft statements. This position, according to some reports motivated by particular behind the scene promises by the Turkish government, also contributed to the current weak position of the patriarchy.
Formally, Bartholomew I of Constantinople and the Ecumenical Patriarchate of Constantinople are expected to be the first among equals in the Orthodox world. However, the constistent policy of selling the interests of the church in attempts to gain additional influence and power by Bartholomew I led to the sitaution when the Ecumenical Patriarchate became isolated from the rest of local churches that work to protect traditional and religious values of the people in the countries where they work.
The turning of the Hagia Sophia into a mosque and the triumph of President Erdogan also showcased the current division in the Orthodox world and the ongoing decline of the Ecumenical Patriarchate, actions of which led to this division.
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