However, in early July, a Turkish court canceled the law that turned Hagia Sophia into a museum amid the growing call for reconversion, allowing Erdoğan to declare the place a mosque. The decision led to the condemnation of many of Turkey’s Western allies and Orthodox Christians around the world.
Turkish Christians took a more cautious approach, and few spoke out. For example, the Armenian Patriarch of Istanbul in June supported the reopening of Hagia Sophia to worship – although he proposed to provide space for prayer for both Christians and Muslims.
Vasiliadis also chose his words with care. “There is an atmosphere [among] the majority of people who applaud this decision [to reconvert the Hagia Sophia] that makes Christians living in the city extra careful about what they say so they are not misunderstood, “he said.
Ecumenical Patriarch Bartholomew, leader of the world’s Orthodox Christians – whose official title remains Bartholomew I of Constantinople – warned against Turkey’s decision that conversion would “turn millions of Christians from around the world against Islam.”
Yet Christians in Turkey fear the opposite.
“There is an Islamist and nationalist atmosphere that makes it uncomfortable for Christians in Turkey. I’m afraid of this [conversion] can cause tensions, although it is no more difficult today than it was a hundred years ago, ‘said Yetvart Danzikyan, editor-in-chief of the Armenian newspaper Agos in Istanbul.
In his view, Hagia Sophia’s decision was only the last “step of nationalism” by the conservative government of Turkey. “All Christian minorities and secular people are unhappy and fearful. Some younger Christians are thinking of leaving Turkey and moving to Western countries,” he added.
Their number is constantly decreasing.
In 1914, Christians still made up about 20 percent of the population of what is now Turkey, but a series of massacres, deportations and pogroms in the first half of the 20th century – including the 1915 Armenian Genocide, which spans as much as 1.5 million believed to have died, and Greco-Turkish 1923 population exchange – saw their numbers decrease sharply. (Ankara denies that a genocide has taken place.)
Today, it is estimated that only about 100,000 remain in the country of 82 million, including Greek Orthodox, Armenian and Syrian Christians, as well as Catholic and Protestant communities.
In Istanbul, the Greek Orthodox community now has no more than 600 families. In the past 15 years, Vasiliadis has said that his newspaper has received far more obituaries than baptismal announcements.
In the domestic debate, the feelings of the country’s Christians are barely expressed, with most critics focusing on what conversion means for Turkey’s constitutionally obligatory secularism. After all, Hagia Sophia was turned into a museum by none other than Mustafa Kemal Atatürk, the secularist founder of the Turkish republic.
Few, if any, advocates of conversion believe that Christians have a claim on Hagia Sophia, which became a mosque when the Ottomans conquered Byzantine Constantinople.
“If Christians want the frescoes or icons or other things, they can take them with them. An auction could even be sold to the people they consider valuable, “said Emre Çelik, a 34-year-old activist who has organized protests to reopen Hagia Sophia as a mosque in recent years. (Curtains now cover the precious Christian iconography of Hagia Sophia during prayer times.)
Çelik, whose WhatsApp profile picture depicts Hagia Sophia breaking out of chains, is happy – as are the majority of Turks: A poll Last month it appeared that 60 percent of the respondents were in favor of converting the monument into a mosque.
“I think the Orthodox community are the only ones who disagree,” he said, “but in general the other Christians don’t pay much attention to this issue and don’t see it as an internal issue of Turkey. It is not possible to make everyone happy with a decision. “
Danzikyan, the editor, disagreed.
“This is not only bad news for Christians, but this is bad news for the world,” he said. “I always do [saw] Hagia Sophia as a world heritage site; I always thought this was from all over the world, not just Christians or Muslims. I feel pain that we have lost this World Heritage Site. ‘