Source: New York Times
By Carlotta Gall, who is the Istanbul bureau chief for The New York Times, covering Turkey.
The World Heritage site was once a potent symbol of Christian-Muslim rivalry, and it could become one once more.
ISTANBUL — Since it was built in the sixth century, changing hands from empire to empire, Hagia Sophia has been a Byzantine cathedral, a mosque under the Ottomans and finally a museum, making it one of the world’s most potent symbols of Christian-Muslim rivalry and of Turkey’s more recent devotion to secularism.
Now President Recep Tayyip Erdogan is making moves to declare it a working mosque once more, fulfilling a dream for himself, his supporters and conservative Muslims far beyond Turkey’s shores — but threatening to set off an international furor.
The very idea of changing the monument’s status has escalated tensions with Turkey’s longtime rival, Greece; upset Christians around the world; and set off a chorus of dismay from political and religious leaders as diverse as Secretary of State Mike Pompeo and Patriarch Kirill of the Russian Orthodox Church.
Mr. Erdogan’s opponents say he has raised the issue of restoring Hagia Sophia as a mosque every time he has faced a political crisis, using it to stir supporters in his nationalist and conservative religious base.
But given the severity of the challenges Mr. Erdogan faces after 18 years at the helm of Turkish politics, there may be more reason than ever to take the talk seriously. Having lost Istanbul in local elections last year, the president has watched the standing of his party continue to slide in the polls as the Covid-19 pandemic has further undone a vulnerable economy.