The Armenian genocide and Hagia Sophia

Pope Francis’s declaration that the slaughter of Armenians by Ottoman forces 100 years ago was “the first genocide of the 20th century” will hasten the conversion of the Hagia Sophia museum into a mosque, the top Muslim official in Ankara responded. The Turkish government has long wanted to turn the symbol of Orthodox Christianity into a mosque, and last Friday – Good Friday for the Orthodox – verses from the Koran were recited at the opening of an exhibition at Hagia Sophia, 84 years after it was converted from a mosque into a museum by the founder of modern Turkey, Mustafa Kemal Ataturk. The statement by mufti Mefail Hizli, reported by the Hurriyet Daily News on Thursday, suggests that Turkey’s rage at its inability to stop a growing tide of recognition of the Armenian genocide is encouraging autocratic tendencies and bigotry. It is not only the country’s few remaining Christians who will suffer but Turkish society as a whole.

It is difficult to comprehend how a papal statement on the Armenian issue should weigh on Hagia Sophia, seeing as the roads of Catholic and Orthodox Christians separated nearly 1,000 years ago (in 1054). Today’s Turkish government shows the arrogance of a conqueror who believes that all he sees is hostage to his will. The Ottoman conquerors did convert the Hagia Sophia church into a mosque, but they also commissioned their best architects to build grand new mosques – the Fatih, Suleyman and Sultan Ahmet mosques – honoring Hagia Sophia by trying to outdo it. In his conviction that Turkey had to be built on secular foundations, Ataturk turned Hagia Sophia into a museum, acknowledging the building’s ecumenical significance.

Under the dominance of Recep Tayyip Erdogan, who was prime minister from 2003 until his election as president last year, Turkey is at the crossroads between East and West, between autocracy and democracy, between tolerance and bigotry. In next June’s parliamentary elections, the AKP party which Erdogan founded and still controls, could triumph with about 50 percent of the vote, according to recent polls. After the election, Ergodan aims to strengthen the office of the presidency and will do all that is necessary to achieve this. Converting Hagia Sophia into a mosque will please the AKP’s religious voters and also make clear that the secular regime founded by Ataturk is dead.

Recently, Erdogan has shown increasingly autocratic tendencies. Now, the government’s inability to prevent international recognition of the Armenian genocide is driving him to greater displays of anger, arrogance, greed and envy. He will learn that he can neither ignore history nor subject an ecumenical symbol to his will.

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