A small event with huge spiritual implications took place last week: two men performed the muezzn (the Muslim call to prayer) inside the Hagia Sophia in Istanbul for the first time since the Ottoman Empire ruled.
The pro-government newspaper Yeni Akit reported on March 2 that the Adhan (Islamic call to prayer) and the Koranic verses Surat Al-Fath and Surat An Nasr were recited by two imams at the “Grand Hagia Sophia Mosque”.
“For the first time in history, acoustic test recordings of adhan and the Koran, which were recited with naked voice, were made in Hagia Sophia,” the paper said, making the inaccurate claim that the “Hagia Sophia Mosque was unlawfully converted into a museum when it was a mosque.”
“Will the longing for [Ottoman sultan] Fatih’s trust, Hagia Sophia, finally end?” the article asked.
The current structure was completed in 537 CE at the orders of the Byzantine emperor Justinian I in what was then called Constantinople, the capital of the Roman Empire. It was built to replace a church built by Constantine the Great that burned down. Hagia Sophia remained the world’s largest church for 1,000 years until Constantinople fell to the Ottomans in 1453, marking the fall of the Roman Empire and the entrance of Islam into Europe.
The church was looted before being converted into a mosque and minarets were added. Constantinople became the capital of the conquering Ottoman Empire. With the establishment of the Turkish Republic, in 1923 the capital of Turkey was moved to Ankara and the original Roman Empire name Constantinople was officially changed to the Turkish name Istanbul
As part of his reforms to modernize and moderate the Islamist extremism in the country, the first Turkish President and founder of the Republic of Turkey, Mustafa Kemal Atatürk, transformed the building into a museum in 1935. Use of the complex as a place of worship, mosque or church, was strictly prohibited.
This changed under the rule of Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan , formerly the mayor of Istanbul. In 2006, Erdogan’s government allowed the allocation of a small room in the museum complex to be used as a prayer room for Christian and Muslim museum staff. In 2013, the muezzin was once again heard from the minarets of Hagia Sophia and in 2016, Muslim prayers were held again for the first time in 85 years.
There is a strong movement in Turkey to convert the museum into a mosque and last year, Erdogan announced his support for this initiative.
Dr. Kedar, a senior lecturer in the Department of Arabic at Bar-Ilan University, noted that Christians account for .2 % of the Turkish population and it is euphemistic at best to claim the prayer space is for both Christians and Muslims.
“It is a huge mosque and even if it is not entirely being used that way today, that is the way the Turkish people see it. It was originally turned into a mosque to symbolize Islam’s victory of the Holy Roman Empire, that is to say Christianity, and that is the way Islamic prayer in Hagia Sophia is seen today.”
Dr. Kedar noted that it is an accepted and common practice in Islam to convert the holy sites of other religions into Muslim sites. He noted that Anjem Choudry, a Pakistani Imam in London, openly calls for the conversion of Westminster Abbey, one of the most prominent churches in England, into a mosque.
“Hagia Sophia was a huge victory for Islam. Just as Islam did to Hagia Sophia, that is what they intend to do to every church in the world,” Dr. Kedar said. “For the Muslims, that is the ultimate victory. Islam does not want to simply conquer or destroy the other religions. Their method, their goal, is to convert everything to the service of Allah. his is the main mission of Islam; to convert the entire world to Islam and the service of Allah, the people as well as the places.”
“It is for them like raping their enemy’s daughter in front of their eyes. It is not enough to desecrate or to use the church. They want to convert it to the service of Islam. Everywhere Islam takes a place, they turn the churches into mosques.”
Erdogan’s intentions may go much further than an interest in adding yet another mosque, albeit a significant and spectacular structure, to the Turkish panoply. Erdogan’s Islamic aspirations may be to place himself at the head of the multinational armies of Gog and Magog. Modern-day Turkey was once the Ottoman Empire that ruled over much of the world for over six hundred years. But in Biblical terms, Turkey is known as the location of Mount Ararat, the resting place of Noah’s ark. That region was settled by the descendants of Gomer, the eldest son of Japheth. His descendants formed the nations of Meshech, Tubal, Beth-togarmah, and Gomer, all found in what is now modern Turkey. All of these nations were listed by Ezekiel as being part of the Gog and Magog alliance against Israel.
O mortal, turn your face toward Gog of the land of Magog, the chief prince of Meshech and Tubal. Prophesy against him… Among them shall be Persia, Nubia, and Put, everyone with shield and helmet; Gomer and all its cohorts, Beth-togarmah [in] the remotest parts of the north and all its cohorts—the many peoples with you. Ezekiel 38:2-6
As Dr. Kedar pointed out, usurping the holy sites of other religions is a praiseworthy act in Islam but it takes on more ominous meaning in Turkey when aimed at Christianity. Christians have lived in the region that is modern-day Turkey since the first century when Christianity emerged with Constaninople as one of the major centers of Christianity. But between 1894 and 1924, three waves of violence swept across western Asia, targeting the region’s Christian minorities. Before the violence, Christians accounted for nearly 25% percent of the population. By 1924, the Armenians, Assyrians, and Greeks had been reduced to 2 percent. The total number of victims over the three decades may be more than 1 million. Today, Christians account for less than .5% of the population.
This persecution did not stop with the fall of the Ottoman Empire. In 1942, the Turkish state taxed the non-Muslim minorities with high rates. It deported those who were not able to pay taxes to forced labor camps in eastern Turkey.