Turkey’s conquest mentality over Hagia Sophia threatens minorities - analysts

The rhetoric employed by Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan and his political ally, leader of the far-right Nationalist Movement Party (MHP) Devlet Bahçeli, over the Hagia Sophia poses a threat to Turkey’s Christian citizens, as well as Muslims who don’t agree with their “conquest mentality”, analysts wrote in an article for Providence Magazine on Friday.

On July 10, Turkey’s top administrative court annulled a 1934 decree that turned the sixth-century Byzantine monument Hagia Sophia into a museum. Within hours, Erdoğan issued a decree to re-convert the site into a mosque and announced that the first Friday prayers would be held there on July 24.

Analysts Tuğba Tanyeri Erdemir and Aykan Erdemir said that “Ankara’s fait accompli has raised legitimate concerns about the potential damage to this sixth-century world heritage site, revered by Christians and Muslims alike.”

The Hagia Sophia spent almost a millennium as an Orthodox cathedral, and was converted into a mosque after Istanbul’s conquest in 1453. Some of its Christian mosaics and icons were covered in plaster to allow Muslims to worship inside, as the faith does not allow any images to be present during prayers.

Erdoğan addressed the nation after he issued the decree, and spoke of the “spirit of conquest”. Bahçeli followed suit, saying the Turks’ conquest of Istanbul had “entered a new phase”.

Bahçeli spoke of “the right of the sword” as the basis of the legitimacy of the conversion, using “a violent trope,” the analysts said, calling the tendency “alarming”.

“Such prejudicial language not only targets Turkey’s religious minorities, but also intimidates members of the country’s Muslim majority who oppose the government’s supremacist policies,” they said. The ruling Justice and Development Party’s (AKP) deputy chairman Numan Kurtulmuş likened those opposing the conversion to “Byzantines” - shorthand for “traitors”.

The belligerent language used by the ruling party and its main ally threatens both Turkey’s neighbours and its own citizens, the analysts said, warning of the damage to interfaith relations.

The analysts cited Archbishop of the Greek Orthodox Archdiocese of America Elpidophoros, a Turkish citizen himself, who said, “I don’t want the state to have the mind-set of the conqueror, because I am not a conquered minority. I want to feel in my own country as an equal citizen.”

The analysts added that the conquest mentality “permeates Turkey’s official rhetoric and public discourse, relegating religious minorities to the status of subjects of a Muslim-dominated polity”.

The conversion was a long-standing demand of Turkey’s Islamists, but not part of a widespread or urgent discourse.

“Ironically,” the analysts said, the Turkish government “took no steps to promote deliberation of their policy,” or “consult any of the stakeholders in parliament or another platform, including the ecumenical patriarchate” as it invoked “a unanimous popular will behind their policy”.

The government’s “toxic rhetoric received praise from other extremists around the world,” they said, pointing to the support declared by militant Palestinian group Hamas and Egypt’s Muslim Brotherhood.

Turkey’s religious minorities, on the other hand, have come under increased threat of being targeted in hate crimes, the analysts said. “Given the appeal of Erdoğan’s pan-Islamist policies in the Middle East and beyond, such explosive rhetoric has the potential to embolden and incite other supremacists.”

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