For Turkey’s embattled Christian communities, the destruction and erasure of Christian cultural heritage is nothing new. But the case of the Hagia Sophia's conversion is particularly egregious.
As the Roman Empire’s first Christian cathedral, the Hagia Sophia represents one of the most sacred sites in Christendom and the heart of old Christian civilization. Its conversion to a mosque, more than mere provocation, represents the abandonment of secularism in Turkey as we know it.
The Hagia Sophia was first converted to a mosque following the defeat of the Byzantine Empire at the hands of the Ottoman Empire in 1453. It became a symbol of conquest over Anatolia’s indigenous populations, and it marked the beginning of an era of Christian persecution that would culminate in the genocide of 1.5 million Armenians and a further 1.5 million Greeks, Assyrians, and other Christian minorities between 1915 and 1923.
To this day, Turkey denies this historic crime against humanity and has sought to erase all presence of Armenian, Greek, and Assyrian civilization from the region as part of a campaign of cultural genocide.
Following the end of World War I and the collapse of the Ottoman Empire, the secular founder of the Republic of Turkey, Kemal Ataturk, saw the cathedral-turned-mosque converted into a “monument for all civilization,” serving until now as a museum. Ataturk’s gesture was designed to project his new republic’s secularism outwardly and to attempt to placate and prevent any unwanted scrutiny over the genocide of Christian populations he had overseen and sought to conceal. If the Hagia Sophia's conversion to a mosque was a symbol of Christianity’s defeat, its conversion into a museum symbolized the new Turkish Republic’s desire to relegate its Christian community to the annals of history.
The conversion of the Hagia Sophia into a mosque today, at the behest of Turkey’s neo-Ottoman President Recep Tayyip Erdogan, marks the culmination of over 100 years of Christian genocide in Turkey.
A century ago, Turkey’s Christian communities made up 20% of the country’s population. They now make up just 0.2%, at just 200,000. The mosque conversion signals an increasingly dire reality. And for the Armenians, the single largest Christian community left in Turkey, the horrors of genocide and the current erasure of Armenian civilization are still widely felt.
Following the genocide, many Armenian churches and historic sites suffered the same fate as the Hagia Sophia after being captured in Ataturk’s campaign against the fledgling Armenian Republic and what remained of the Armenian people. The 10th-century cathedral of Kars, left to ruin, served as briefly as a petroleum depot and later as a museum until its conversion to a mosque in 1993. The 19th-century St. Mary’s Cathedral in Gaziantep served as a prison throughout much of the 20th century before being converted into a mosque in 1980. The 11th-century cathedral of Ani on the closed border of Turkey and Armenia (designed by the architect Trdat, who was commissioned to make major restorations to the Hagia Sophia following an earthquake) has been used as a site of political showmanship by Turkish nationalists, with the Turkish Ministry of Culture authorizing a Muslim prayer at the derelict cathedral in 2010.
Those churches that remain, even in the form of museums and mosques, are the lucky ones. Many thousands more have been left to ruin or destroyed in an effort to eradicate the last traces of the Armenian civilization of Anatolia and the Armenian Highlands. Of the estimated 2000 Armenian churches that existed in Turkey in the early 20th century, fewer than 40 remain open and active today — and that number is in constant decline. The same fate has befallen many Greek and Assyrian churches across the country too.
In addition to this, the Turkish government has stripped Christian communities of their cultural and spiritual autonomy, preventing the Greek and Armenian patriarchates from owning or transferring property and playing an intrusive role in the election of church officials.
Erdogan’s AKP party has long eyed the Hagia Sophia for conversion in its ongoing descent into fundamentalist authoritarianism. But his decision to defy strong objections from the international community (including Secretary of State Mike Pompeo, the Greek government, and Orthodox Christian religious leaders) signal that Turkey’s move is more than just provocation.
For Turkey, the conversion of the Hagia Sophia represents the death knell for any remaining semblance of secularism in the country. It signals Turkey’s full embrace of an expansionist, neo-Ottoman foreign policy, unperturbed by its neighbors and allies, and the complete abandonment of its European ambitions that NATO member states once desperately clung onto and used to justify their placation of Turkey amid the country's steady backsliding on democracy and human rights.
Turkey has enjoyed decades of impunity for its egregious human rights abuses. This enabling has set a disturbing precedent, emboldening Erdogan's regional proxies to escalate abuses against embattled Christian minorities. Anti-Armenian protests, incited by Erdogan's Sunni allies in Lebanon (where Armenians make up 5% of the population) and Azerbaijan's recent aggression against Armenia as part of its campaign to deny cultural and political autonomy to the region's indigenous Armenian population, are just two recent examples of the ramifications of Turkey's hate-mongering.
For the remaining Christians of Turkey today, who have experienced the steady erosion of their rights to religious freedom and cultural expression over the last two decades, the conversion of the Hagia Sophia is tantamount to a declaration of war on their very right to exist in the lands they have lived in for millennia.
Alex Galitsky is the communications director of the Armenian National Committee of America-Western Region, the largest Armenian American grassroots advocacy organization in the country.