March 13, 2012

The Church That Politics Turned Into a Mosque

Susanne Gusten
February 8, 2012
The New York Times

As worshipers knelt to face the Qiblah for noon prayers in the Hagia Sophia of Iznik last week, a caretaker beckoned to a couple of tourists tiptoeing around behind them.

“Look,” he whispered, pointing to a faded fresco on the wall, as the imam intoned the prayer and the worshipers faced Mecca. “It’s Jesus, Mary and John the Baptist.”

The caretaker, Nurettin Bulut, a Culture Ministry employee, has been showing visitors around the ancient church in northwestern Turkey for three years, pointing out its Byzantine mosaics and relating its history as the venue of the seventh Ecumenical Council of Christendom and, later, as an Ottoman mosque.

Until three months ago, he was showing them around a museum, with a sign saying “St. Sophia Museum” posted outside, a ticket booth charging 3 lira, or $1.70, per visitor, and a strict ban on prayer enforced inside, just like in its eponymous sister church-turned-mosque-turned-museum in Istanbul.

But in October, the Hagia Sophia of Iznik was closed to the public for several days of construction work by the Directorate General of Foundations, a department of the prime minister’s office in Ankara which manages historical buildings around the country.

When it reopened in early November, a raised wooden platform had been set into the nave and covered with carpets, and green-and-gold plaques with Koran suras had been affixed to the Ottoman mihrab, or prayer niche.

The museum sign was replaced with a new one reading “Mosque of Ayasofya,” the Turkish spelling of Hagia Sophia, and loudspeakers were hoisted on the Ottoman-era minaret. And with dawn prayer on Nov. 6, the first day of Eid al-Adha, the Hagia Sophia was reopened for service as a mosque.

The response from residents has been less than enthusiastic. On a recent weekday, only 18 men answered the call to noon prayer, huddling in a corner of the carpeted platform with the imam to perform their devotions.

Outside, local residents voiced bitterness over the conversion of the landmark, which sits on the main crossroad at the center of the historical town.

“It’s completely unnecessary,” said Emin Acar, a local farmer enjoying the winter sun outside a teahouse within view of the Hagia Sophia.

“We have plenty of mosques here,” Mr. Acar said, in remarks echoed by shoppers and strollers up and down the main street. “What we need are tourists, but they won’t be coming anymore.”

The town, whose income depends largely on surrounding olive groves, had also begun to trade on its eminent place in the history of Christianity to attract faith tourism from the West.

It was here in ancient Nicaea, as the town was then called, that bishops from all over the Roman Empire gathered to craft the Christian creed at the first Ecumenical Council in the year 325.

Four and a half centuries later, the seventh and last of the Ecumenical Councils still recognized by most churches in the world today met in the Hagia Sophia of Nicaea in the year 787 to denounce iconoclasm, opening the door to a millennium of Christian religious art.

The site was converted into a mosque by the Ottoman conquerors of Iznik in the 14th century, but fell into disrepair and was abandoned long before the Turkish Republic was founded in 1923.

Restored by district authorities and the foundations directorate in 2007, the Hagia Sophia became in the past few years the focal point of Christian tourism to Iznik. Last year, 40,000 foreign tourists visited the town, according to its chamber of commerce.

“They came for the Hagia Sophia, but they won’t be coming anymore,” said Ilknur Gunes, who sells her hand-made jewelry a block from the ex-church. “If someone converted a historical mosque I wanted to see into a church, I wouldn’t want to go anymore, either. Historical sites should be kept as museums.”

Emerging from the Hagia Sophia, a German tourist, Claus Stoll from Stuttgart, said he did not mind the conversion, “as long as the building is preserved.” Turkish tourists were more skeptical.

“It’s not a good place for a mosque,” said Gokturk Tutuncu, on an outing with his family from Istanbul.

“It should have remained a museum,” Nilgun Tuna, visiting from Istanbul, said. “We should protect our historical heritage, and that includes the Christian heritage.”

One young man from Istanbul, who declined to give his name, was in favor of the conversion. “And high time too,” he said. “Next, I want to see it happen in the Hagia Sophia in Istanbul.”

In the Iznik City Hall, across the street from the Hagia Sophia, Deputy Mayor Kenan Zengin of the Nationalist Action Party shook his head when asked about the conversion. “We had nothing to do with the decision,” Mr. Zengin said. “In fact, we were not even asked.”

While the conversion was technically decided by the Directorate General of Foundations, the political decision was made by Deputy Prime Minister Bulent Arinc, local officials said.

“We first heard of it when Mr. Arinc visited Iznik” in late September, Mahmut Dede, chairman of the local chamber of commerce, said in his office behind the Hagia Sophia, adding that the business community had initially been upset about the plan and publicly protested it. But after a chat with the local chairman of the ruling Justice and Development Party, known as A.K.P., to which Mr. Arinc belongs, “We said, okay, if a deputy prime minister sees fit to do so, then let’s wait and see,” Mr. Dede said. “And now we are waiting to see what happens to Iznik” when the tourism season begins in April.

Mr. Arinc acknowledged his role in the decision last year on Olay TV, a station in Bursa Province, to which Iznik belongs and which he represents in Parliament.

“This is the happiest day of my term in office, because I have contributed to such a good work,” he said according to a transcript posted on his personal Web site.

Mr. Arinc said that, unlike the Hagia Sophia of Istanbul, the Iznik site had never been formally registered as a museum at the foundation of the republic, and thus remained by rights a mosque even though it had been not used as such for a century.

He added that his office had turned down an earlier request from the Culture Ministry to take over the administration of the Hagia Sophia. “We told them that it is a mosque and that it cannot be used for any other purpose,” he said.

His stance seemed to put him at odds with Culture Minister Ertugrul Gunay, who has been at pains to foster the Christian heritage of Anatolia as a means of attracting faith tourism. “As the venue of two Ecumenical Councils, Iznik really has the potential to draw a lot of interest from all over the world,” Mr. Gunay said last year. “So we are trying to promote Iznik and to restore it.”

As of this week, three months after the conversion to a mosque, the Hagia Sophia was still listed as a museum on the Culture Ministry’s Web site.

While these clashing approaches would seem to put the two ministers on a collision course, analysts say it is all part of the A.K.P.’s political strategy.

“Even though it is generally seen simply as a conservative party, the A.K.P. in fact unites very different currents and views under its roof,” Adil Gur, a political analyst and owner of the A&G polling company, said by telephone this week.

Within the cabinet, for example, Mr. Gunay represents a social democratic tradition, while Mr. Arinc speaks for the pious wing of the party, Mr. Gur said. He also mentioned Interior Minister Idris Naim Sahin of the party’s nationalist wing and Egemen Bagis, the liberal and pro-Western minister for E.U. affairs, are further examples of the party’s internal diversity.

The leaders of these diverging currents occasionally make “strong statements” for the benefit of their respective followers, Mr. Gur said. “At first glance, this can sometimes give the impression of fissures or infighting within the party, but it is in fact not so,” he added. “It is just the way the A.K.P. keeps all the diverging currents together in one party.”

Outside the Iznik mosque, Fahri Ugur, a taxi driver, shrugged and ordered another tea from the corner store. “We had just begun to make a few pennies from tourism,” he said. “Now we can forget that again.”