Mosques in Hagia Sophia and Chora Monastery: what’s next?
In the wake of Hagia Sophia, the Turkish authorities are converting another ancient Orthodox shrine into a mosque – Church of the Holy Saviour in Chora. What next?
Only a few weeks have passed since Hagia Sophia was converted into a mosque. And again, the Turkish government announced that the same fate would befall one of the oldest Christian shrines in Istanbul, the Church of Christ the Saviour of the Chora Monastery.
History of the temple
Historians suggest that the Chora Monastery was initially built in 534, i.e. even earlier than the Hagia Sophia Cathedral. The name Chora, i.e. “in the fields”, means that it was outside the city walls at the time of its founding. The original structure has not survived to this day, but the existing one was built during the era of the imperial dynasty of the Komnenos, to be more precise, in 1077-1081 years during the reign of Emperor Alexios Komnenos. Subsequently, this church was destroyed and rebuilt several times. In 1315-1321, the great logothete Theodore Metochites significantly rebuilt the Church of the Holy Saviour in Chora and decorated it with mosaics and frescoes which have survived to this day.
Theodore Metochites was considered one of the most learned people of his time. He left behind several works on astronomy, philosophy, history and literature. His most famous student is Saint Gregory Palamas, who studied under his guidance secular disciplines and philosophy.
After the capture of Constantinople by the Turks in 1453, the Cathedral of Christ the Savior in Chora was turned into the Kakhriye-jami mosque, while the murals and mosaics were covered with a layer of plaster. In 1945, the Chora Monastery became a museum, and in 1948 significant restoration work was done there, whereby ancient images were discovered in the shrine. With the temple being turned back into a mosque, they will probably be draped.
Why does Erdogan need a new Christian "sacrifice"?
Whereas everything is more or less clear in the case of Hagia Sophia, everything is more complicated with the Chora Monastery. The Hagia Sophia Mosque is a symbol of the policy pursued by R. Erdogan, which is called neo-Ottomanism. The decision to turn Hagia Sophia into a mosque was supposed to rally the supporters of R. Erdogan inside Turkey and increase his rating among the population. This was partially successful, although not to the extent R. Erdogan had hoped for. As for foreign policy, the decision on Hagia Sophia in this area was intended to indicate Turkey's leadership in the Islamic world. There are significant risks here, which the Turkish president deliberately took.
The Turkish authorities decided that the political dividends from turning Hagia Sophia into a mosque outweighed the potential risks.
On the one hand, this is a claim for leadership in the Muslim world, where Turkey competes with Saudi Arabia, Iran and Egypt. On the other hand, the conversion of Hagia Sophia into a mosque caused a backlash in European countries and the United States, which is fraught with deterioration in their currently rather complicated relations. But the Turkish authorities decided that the political dividends from turning Hagia Sophia into a mosque outweighed the risks.
However, unlike Hagia Sophia, the conversion of Church of Christ the Savior of the Chora Monastery into a mosque is unlikely to bring domestic political dividends to R. Erdogan but may further aggravate his relations with Europe and the United States. One should bear in mind that there is an extremely tense situation in the waters of the Black and Mediterranean Seas. On August 21, 2020, R. Erdogan announced that Turkey had discovered a gas field of 320 billion cubic meters and called this event historical. However, such actions of Turkey cause a sharply negative reaction from Greece (which also claims to develop the sea shelf), France and other countries. The warships of Turkey, Greece and France are in close proximity to each other in the Mediterranean Sea, so any provocation or negligence can cause an armed conflict between them. Why should R. Erdogan want to aggravate the situation even more by turning another Orthodox church, which used to have the museum status, into a mosque? The explanation for such actions may be as follows.
On the motives of anti-Christian actions of the President of Turkey
First, it is a neo-Ottomanism policy, pursued by the current Turkish authorities. Recall that the principles of the state structure of the founder of the Turkish state, Kemal Ataturk, boiled down to the fact that Turkey should abandon imperial ambitions, territorial claims to the countries that were once part of the Ottoman Empire, develop cooperation with Europe, and become a secular state. That is why many Orthodox churches, including Hagia Sophia, which had been converted into mosques during the empire, acquired the status of museums under Kemal Ataturk. Kemal Ataturk ranks as the father of the nation and state in Turkish society, his authority being indisputable.
The current Turkish power cannot yet declare for all to hear their rejection of Kemal Ataturk's political legacy. Therefore, they use the tactics of "small steps", gradually changing Turkey's domestic and foreign policy. Therefore, the conversion of former Orthodox churches, which became museums under Ataturk, back into mosques is the fruit of the implementation of such tactics.
The current Turkish authorities cannot yet declare for all to hear their rejection of Kemal Ataturk's political legacy. Therefore, they use the "small steps" tactic.
Secondly, the reason for the latest decisions of the Turkish president is his personal convictions and his role in history as he sees it himself. Well, the Turkish president ranks himself neither more nor less than the new Mehmed the Conqueror, who not only took Constantinople in 1453, but also conquered the territories of present-day Serbia, Albania, Greece and other countries.
Recep Tayyip Erdoğan cannot boast of such a scale, of course, but he sees himself as the leader of the Muslim world in the context of the emerging new geopolitical realities. He intervened in military conflicts in Syria, Libya and Iraq. His troops are now illegally occupying parts of the territories of these countries. He is a few steps away from war with Greece over the offshore mineral deposits. He has ruined relations with almost all of his neighboring countries. And despite the fact that the economic situation in Turkey currently leaves much to be desired, R. Erdogan does not stop at anything in promoting his neo-Ottomanism policy. Surely, he will not stop before fomenting sectarian conflict, turning Christian churches into mosques. This incitement of sectarian hatred is not unfamiliar to him. In 1994, being mayor of Istanbul, Recep Erdogan was found guilty and sentenced to ten months in prison for "inciting violence and religious or racial hatred."
Thirdly, this is a blow to the authority of Patriarch Bartholomew.
The head of the Phanar, according to Turkish media reports, is involved in a failed coup attempt in 2016 and friendly relations with the disgraced Turkish leader Abdullah Gul, who lives in the United States. Also, the Turkish authorities do not like the fact that Patriarch Bartholomew is strongly dependent on the US Administration and makes decisions to please the Americans that do not correspond to the policy pursued by Turkey.
The conversion of churches into mosques is a signal to Patriarch Bartholomew that he should show much more loyalty to the Turkish authorities than he has done until now.
As regards Patriarch Bartholomew, he has put himself in a position where he has no defenders left before the Turkish power. The American authorities are now unable to provide him with substantial support because they themselves are facing confrontation with R. Erdogan. The attitude of principle towards the Patriarchate of Constantinople is implemented through the very pressure on Phanar from the Turkish authorities, the essence of which is that the Turkish power views Phanar as a purely internal structure of Turkey and does not recognize it as having international significance. Thus, the conversion of churches into mosques is a signal to Patriarch Bartholomew that he should show much greater loyalty to the Turkish authorities than he has done until now.
What should be expected from the Turkish authorities next?
It can be assumed that those churches that have the status of museums today will continue to turn into mosques. However, Recep Tayyip Erdoğan will hardly decide to do the same with the existing temples. Also, the resumed demands of the Turkish authorities to the Patriarch of Constantinople to move from Turkey somewhere to Athos or to the United States have not been spoken up so far. Similar ideas were already voiced several decades ago, but now they are not on the agenda, although, given the character of the Turkish president, such a turn of events is also not excluded.
As for the reaction of European countries to the conversion of Church of the Holy Saviour in Chora into a mosque, it is expected to be much less harsh than in a similar case with Hagia Sophia. The Russian Orthodox Church through the Deputy Head of the Department for External Church Relations, Archpriest Nikolai Balashov, noted that “the Turkish leadership is ready to continue to consistently ignore the universal value of the heritage of conquered Byzantium, alien to its understanding, and to demonstrate to mankind contemptuous indifference to Christian cultural values. All this by no means contributes to understanding, cooperation and friendship between our nations, peace and mutual respect between professors of different religions."
In turn, the Turkish leadership does not hide the fact that it does not attach any value to "the heritage of the conquered Byzantium". Nor does it seek to secure "understanding, cooperation, peace and mutual respect". Turks are well aware that there can be no peace between Muslim and European civilizations. Rather, it can be, but based solely on the balance of power. In other words, the Turkish leadership only respects strength, which is generally traditional for the Middle East. And Europe, having ceased to recognize itself as Christian, abandoning Christian morality and bearing the costs of supporting millions of illegal migrants from Muslim countries, has shown its weakness – and not only the political.
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European and basically Western civilization is now called "post-Christian". We can see Europeans increasingly abandoning their faith with every decade. Christian churches are being closed down, turned into restaurants and gyms, or simply bulldozed because they are useless. At the same time, the ideology of LGBT and gender is being actively entrenched in Western civilization. How can tens of thousands of Muslim migrants from Europe and even those Muslims who are watching the developments from Turkey take this? As a clear signal of spiritual weakness, Christians do not need Christian churches. Despite the fact that post-Christian Europe is a largely Catholic territory, Muslims do not bother to tell Catholics from Orthodox.
It is regrettable but still necessary to admit that Muslim civilization is not only ousting Christianity from their countries, but also expanding quite successfully into European countries. We have to realize with bitterness that Ukraine is no exception in this trend. One does not have to go far in search of examples. Most recently, the Ukrainian authorities decided to build a mosque for 5,000 people in the center of Kyiv, as well as to give the Islamic religious holidays Kurban-Bayram and Uraza-Bayram the status of public ones. Moreover, Turkey will build this mosque at its own expense, and the supervisor of the construction is Turkish Ambassador to Ukraine Yagmur Ahmet Guldere. This is how European countries, including Ukraine, are showing protest against the anti-Christian actions of Recep Tayyip Erdoğan. Therefore, whatever the protests might be, Turkey is getting and will get Islam to advance in Christian territories with Ukraine being also in the area of its interests.