Tens of thousands of Turkish Islamists held a triumphalist gathering outside Istanbul's Hagia Sophia museum on Saturday. Originally built as a cathedral in 537 by the Byzantine Emperor Justinian, it was converted into a mosque by the Ottomans following the fall of Constantinople in 1453.The former religious site was re-opened as a museum in 1935. The Islamists who prayed at the site on Saturday did so with the hope that it would be converted back into a mosque by Turkish Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan.
The protest also coincided with the anniversary of the Ottoman conquest of Constantinople on May 29, 1453, an event for which Erdogan has encouraged the celebration.
Mustafa Kemal Ataturk, the founder of the modern Turkish republic, converted the massive structure into a museum in 1935.
For Turkey's Islamists, Hagia Sophia serves as a symbol of Islam's triumph over Christianity.
"Ayasofya is a symbol for the Islamic world and the symbol of Istanbul's conquest. Without it, the conquest is incomplete, we have failed to honor Sultan Mehmet's trust," Reuters quoted Salih Turan, head of the Anatolia Youth Association, as saying. The association claims it has collected 15 million signatures asking for Hagia Sophia to reopen as a mosque.
Details of the conquest and Hagia Sophia's conversion from being a church into a mosque stand in stark contrast to the picture of Islam that Islamists want to portray – that of a tolerant and ethical faith. Islamic law might forbid the slaughter of innocent non-combatants during times of war, but that was not what happened in Hagia Sophia the day Constantinople fell.
The late Sir Steven Runicman, widely regarded as one of the greatest scholars of Byzantine history, noted that Ottoman soldiers under Sultan Mehmet's command entered the cathedral and indiscriminately slaughtered men, women, children and the elderly. Mehmet's personal imam then climbed into the pulpit to proclaim the shahada, transforming Hagia Sophia into a mosque.
Sheik Abdullah Basfar, the imam of the Ka'aba in Mecca, who led Saturday's prayer gathering outside Hagia Sophia, has a history of extremist rhetoric. In a translation provided by the Middle East Media Research Institute (MEMRI), he notably stated in September 2005 that funding the Palestinian jihad against Israel was a religious "duty" of all Muslims.
Erdogan's government, however, says no plans currently exist to turn Hagia Sophia into a mosque.
The world's 350 million Eastern Orthodox Christians still look to Hagia Sophia as one of the most sacred places in their faith – a reminder of the Christian Byzantine Empire that stood for over 1,000 years.
Hagia Sophia's place in the Orthodox consciousness was such that a group of American Greek Orthodox Christians similarly and unsuccessfully tried to hold services there in 2010. Talk about converting Hagia Sophia into a mosque has provoked strong condemnation from the Greek government, which issued a statement in November 2013, saying talk about "converting Byzantine Christian churches into mosques [is] offending the religious feeling of millions of Christians."
The Ecumenical Patriarch of Constantinople Bartholomew I, the world's most senior Orthodox bishop, similarly condemned the effort, saying it should remain a museum or be reopened as a church.
Transforming Hagia Sophia back into a mosque would necessitate the whitewashing of priceless treasures of Byzantine iconography.
Turning Hagia Sophia into a mosque reinforces the narrative that Muslims seek to subordinate other religions to Islam, and it reinforces the idea of a clash of civilizations.
"It would strengthen the mutual suspicion and polarization between the West and the Muslim world," Sahin Alpay, professor of political science at Bahcesehir University, told Reuters. "All hell breaking loose is a high price to pay."