The United Nations came out strongly against the Turkish government turning Haga Sophia, built as the most prominent church of its time, into a mosque. But many people, Jews and Christian, noted that UNESCO was being hypocritical since it has a long history of supporting Muslim appropriation of Jewish sites in Israel.

Last week, a Turkish court opened the way for President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan to fulfill his promise to turn Hagia Sophia into a mosque. Despite being built as the world’s most prominent church in 537 CE several decades before Mohammad was born, Erdogan has claimed that it was originally built as a mosque. 

The United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization (UNESCO) reacted to Erdogan’s actions, warning that they may impact the Heritage Site status the organization had granted to the site in 1985.

“Hagia Sophia is an architectural masterpiece and a unique testimony to interactions between Europe and Asia over the centuries. Its status as a museum reflects the universal nature of its heritage, and makes it a powerful symbol for dialogue,” UNESCO Director-General Audrey Azoulay said in an official statement over the weekend 

“This decision announced today raises the issue of the impact of this change of status on the property’s universal value. States have an obligation to ensure that modifications do not affect the Outstanding Universal Value of inscribed sites on their territories. 

According to the World Heritage List, Hagia Sophia is a “model for an entire family of churches and later mosques, and the mosaics of the palaces and churches of Constantinople influenced both Eastern and Western art.”

Ze’ev Orenstein, the Director of International Affairs for the  City of David, was critical of the prejudiced nature of UNESCO’s role in Heritage Sites.

“UNESCO shouldn’t be shocked at Turkey converting the Hagia Sophia museum, a 6th century CE cathedral, into a mosque,’ Orenstein told Breaking Israel News. “UNESCO’ has been complicit in the erasure of Jewish and Christian heritage in the Middle East for far too long, most notably in Jerusalem.”

“UNESCO has advanced resolutions erasing the Jewish and Christian heritage at sites such as the Temple Mount and  Western Wall. They have turned a blind eye to the destruction of millennia-old Jewish and Christian heritage sites throughout the Middle East.”

“It should therefore come as no surprise when Erdogan and Turkey decide to follow in UNESCO’s footsteps by converting the Hagia Sofia Museum into a mosque.”

Orenstein’s connecting the fate of Hagia Sophis to that of the Temple Mount was explicit in Erdogan’s speech announcing the decision. Erdogan stated that usurping Hagi Sophia for exclusive Muslim use was part of a wider agenda that would include the “return of freedom to al-Aqsa.” Since Al Aqsa mosque on the Temple Mount is currently used as a mosque and non-Muslims are prohibited from entering the site or praying in the Temple Mount Compound, it is clear that his meaning was to attack and conquer Israel.

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 Constantinople 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.

This aspect of the action at Hagia Sophia was recognized by the Jerusalemite Initiative, an organization with the stated goal of integrating Arabic-speaking Christians into the IDF and the Israeli Society. The Jerusalemite Initiative called for a protest rally in front of the Turkish Consulate on Monday. 

Elias Zarina, an Israeli Christian Arab and co-founder of the Jerusalemite Initiative, was so passionate about the danger Erdogan’s actions posed to Christians around the world that at the protest rally, he tore a Turkish flag to pieces, leading to police issuing a restraining order forbidding Zarina from approaching the Turkish Embassy. 

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“Israel is the only place Christians protested this horrible treatment of the site which is so historically important to Christianity,” Zarina said. “In fact, Israel is the only place Christians in the Middle East are allowed to raise our voices in our own defense.”

“What Erdogan just did to Hagia Sophia and it will not stop there, Muslims have been doing to Christians all through history. This is what the Muslims did to the Temple Mount; they built a Muslim building on top of the ruins of the Jewish Temple and now Jews are forbidden from going there or praying there. And UNESCO went along with it, perpetuating the Muslim lie that the Temple Mount is only a holy site for the Muslims.”

Zarina noted the insidious nature of this aspect of Islam. He cited as an example the Umayyad Mosque in Damascus that was built on the site of a fourth-century Christian basilica after the Muslim conquest of Damascus in 634 CE.  A legend dating to the sixth century holds that the building contains the head of John the Baptist who, according to Islam, was a Muslim. The mosque is also believed by Muslims to be the place where Jesus will return at the End of Days to convert all the remaining Christians to Islam.

“I am a proud Israeli,” Zarina said. “I have prayed at the Kotel (Western Wall) as a Christian, openly, saying my Christian prayers out loud. No one would ever think of bothering me. Jews and Christians all believe in a House of Prayer for all Nations. Muslims clearly do not; not on the Temple Mount, not anywhere in the world.”

“UNESCO goes along with this at the Temple Mount and even at the Cave of the Patriarchs in Hebron. If Israel hadn’t fought against this, there would be no Jewish prayer or even Christian prayer at these holy sites. If we don’t stop Erdogan at Hagia Sophia, this will happen in other places.”

The Jerusalemite initiative also posted an online petition against the Turkish actions at Hagia Sophia.

Hagia Sophia,  meaning “Divine Wisdom” in Greek, was the third church of the same name to occupy the site. The current structure was built as the Christian cathedral church of Constantinople between 532 and 537 on the orders of the Roman emperor Justinian I. It remained the world’s largest cathedral for nearly a thousand years until Seville Cathedral was completed in 1520. In 1204, it was converted by the Fourth Crusaders to a Roman Catholic cathedral under the Latin Empire, before being restored to the Eastern Orthodox Church upon the return of the Byzantine Empire in 1261. After the Fall of Constantinople to the Ottoman Empire in 1453, it was converted to a mosque.

 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.