Another iconic symbol of Christian heritage in Turkey bites the dust … despite more than 3,000 mosques in Istanbul alone

Holy Savior Church in Chora holds first Muslim prayers on 30 October

ISTANBUL – Over the centuries, the Holy Savior Church in Chora (Kariye) has taken on many identities. From its construction in the sixth century AD, the Byzantine church of the Monastery of Christ the Savior has served as a Greek Orthodox church, a mosque (following its takeover by the Ottomans in 1511), and, by cabinet decree, a museum since 1945.

Back when the church was made a museum, Turkey had Kemalist ‘secular’ state policies. According to Associate Prof. of Religious Studies at Stanford University Anna Bigelow, Mustapha Kemal ‘Atatürk’ wanted to show Turkey’s secular modern path and “promoted numerous projects to minimize the public role of religion in society.”

“The new Republic of Turkey, founded on secular principles and seeking legitimacy in international institutions, renovated the Hagia Sophia as a museum,” said Bigelow.

On 30 October, the Chora Church will change identity again. It was announced by the head of Turkey’s Religious Affairs Directorate (Diyanet), Prof. Dr. Ali Erbaş, that the Chora Church will be re-inaugurated a mosque. It will be the first time in 75 years since the Chora was last used for official Islamic prayers.

Earlier this year, in a highly publicized move, the world-famous Hagia Sophia UNESCO World Heritage Site was converted back into a mosque after decades as a museum.

When turned into a museum, Chora’s beautiful mosaics of Jesus Christ, the Apostles, the Virgin Mary, and numerous saints, plastered over during it’s time as a mosque, were restored to their former glory. But, as with the Hagia Sophia, the Chora’s 11th century mosaics and frescoes on the interior ceilings and walls will now be covered during the five daily Muslim prayers. White curtains have been suspended from the ceiling. The lower frescoes have already been covered over with greyish plaster.

Image: Asianews

With the official decision to convert Chora into a mosque, the Islamic-nationalist government of President Recep Tayyip Erdogan’s Justice and Development Party (AKP), backed by the ultra-nationalist National Action Party (MHP), appears to be waging a populist crusade against Istanbul’s ancient churches. Diminishing popularity in election polls, especially with the country’s youth, an economy in serious trouble, high unemployment, an exchange rate going downhill, and expansionist Ottoman ambitions in the Mediterranean, Libya, Syria, Iraq, and the Caucasus, the AKP-MHP government needs to satisfy and mobilize its core conservative supporters. Where better than in Istanbul’s central conservative working-class Fatih district? And what better way than stirring up nationalist and religious sentiment?

One way in which Erdogan has aroused nationalist sentiment is the supposed expiration of the Lausanne Treaty signed following the collapse of the Ottoman Empire establishing the borders of the modern Turkish Republic. No such expiration clause exists in the treaty, but that hasn’t stopped conspiracies theories about a new age of Turkish expansion from popping up.

In recent years, Turkey has embarked on an aggressive expansionist geopolitical adventure as it seeks to establish itself as a regional power, and Erdogan attempts to solidify his position at home. Turkey has gone from a foreign policy of ‘no problems with neighbors’ to and ‘assertive’ no neighbors without problems.

By re-converting two iconic symbols into mosques, as they were in Ottoman times, it seems clear that President Erdogan is moving away from previous ‘secular’ state policies. He has come a long way from being Europe’s financially and politically supported and loved ‘moderate Islamist’ in the 2000s and has become the problematic NATO-ally buying Russian S-400s, calling French President Macron psychologically unstable, the Dutch government ‘nazi remnants and fascists’, and threatening European countries with releasing hundreds of thousands of refugees into Europe.

How long Erdogan can keep the many plates he has spun in the air is unclear. With Turkey increasingly politically and economically isolated, it may be a matter of time before Erdogan himself comes crashing to the floor.

Turkey’s President Erdogan surrounded by soldiers, wearing traditional army uniforms from the Ottoman Empire. 12 Jan. 2015. Image Credit: AFP/Getty Images