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A Christian Church and Turkey’s Denial of Heritage and History

By Wesley Smith1595000746013

Turkey’s highest court last Friday annulled a 1934 decree that designated the historic Hagia Sophia as a museum, providing a way for the former Christian church building and historical landmark to be used once again as a mosque.  Right after the ruling, Turkey’s President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan, who pledged during his re-election bid to make the move, issued an order declaring the building to be a mosque. He said Muslims will be praying there again by July 24th.  As all of this unfolded, Muslims gathered outside Hagia Sophia chanting “Allahu Akbar” (Allah is great).  The decision has sparked criticism from around the world, including Pope Francis, heads of the various Orthodox Churches, numerous Islamic leaders, and governments around the world voicing dismay.

The cathedral was finished in 537 AD and served as the seat of Byzantine Christendom for around 900 years before being seized by the Ottomans in 1453 and converted into a mosque. It held that status until Mustafa Kemal Ataturk’s 1934 decree turned it into a museum. Ataturk was Turkey’s leader in the 20th century who led the transformation of Turkey from an Islamic state under the Ottoman Empire to a modern, Western nation.  Under his leadership, Turkey became an ally of the United States and eventually became a member of the North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO).

Ataturk’s work is being reversed; and under President Erdoğan, Turkey is once again becoming an Islamic state with himself as its de facto dictator.  It is evident from his rhetoric over his tenure as president that he views Turkey as the new Muslim caliphate with himself as sultan and caliph.  Religious tolerance, human rights, and the rule of law are undermined as Erdoğan has purged the military, squelched an independent press, and taken control of the country’s judicial system.  Thousands of dissidents have been imprisoned and others executed.

It is now against the law to insult Erdoğan, under Article 299 of Turkey’s penal code.  More than 30,000 people have been prosecuted under the statute which carries a minimum four-year prison sentence.  Erdoğan has resurrected the persecution of Armenian Christians, a poignant reminder of the slaughter of over one million Armenians in 1915 in one of the 20th century’s first acts of mass genocide.

After a failed coup attempt in 2016, Erdoğan arrested American Pastor Andrew Brunson, falsely claiming that he was involved with supporters of Fethullah Gülen, a Turkish cleric living in the United States. Through the efforts of the ACLJ, Brunson was eventually released after being charged with “Christianization” by Erdoğan’s government.

This was the beginning of Erdoğan’s outright persecution of Christians. Deportations of Christians followed, as reported in the 2019 report on religious freedom by the U.S. State Department. However, Erdoğan has unapologetically oppressed Orthodox Christians in Turkey for years. More than 50 foreign Protestant Christians, including Finns, Germans, and South Koreans, have been banned from Turkey as recently as June 26th on the grounds they present “a threat to Turkey’s public order and public health.” More than half are U.S. citizens.  This move is literally tearing families apart, as many of these are married to Turkish citizens with whom they have children.

In a report by Al-Monitor, Turkey is ranked 26th in countries where it is most difficult to be a Christian, citing Open Doors USA.  "While it is within every country's right to decide its own policies regarding foreigners, Turkey has a long history of using deportations to eradicate the Christian presence within the country," said Claire Evans, Middle East Regional Manager for International Christian Concern, an advocacy group. "Turkey is essentially suffocating the church by forcing Christian leaders to leave this country. This is clearly a religious freedom violation," Evans told Al-Monitor.

Let’s be clear.  Erdoğan is not merely Islamic; he is an Islamist.  He is using the Muslim faith as a cover for garnering absolute power, persecuting all who do not follow him and his erstwhile view of Islam.  Like other Islamists, it is not merely about religion, though that is their claim.  It is about unchecked power for him and absolute loyalty for those under his rule.  It is twisting religion in order to gain the support of religious hardliners, all while using violence and imprisonment to achieve his megalomaniacal goals.  Men like Erdoğan are a threat to all that is humane and decent in the world.

Erdoğan’s action concerning Hagia Sophia is indicative of his lust for power combined with a hatred of Jews, Christians, and other religious groups.  Contrary to his claims, it is a denial of both history and heritage, for Turkey and the world. Contrary to his claims, it will no longer be a consecrated and sacred space where Christians and Muslims may gather. Left unchecked, the Christian icons will not be merely covered during Muslim prayers, as he promised; they will be moved from this historic site—or destroyed. It is the latest act in a series of actions that reveal his true intentions.

We must stand against this action and enlist the united support of people around the world to stand with us. You can learn more about what the ACLJ is doing to help protect the historic Hagia Sophia here.

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