Constantinople, April 3, 2018
Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan has again brazenly offended Orthodox Christians in Greece and around the world by reciting a prayer from the Koran in the iconic Agia Sophia, ignoring its status as a non-denominational museum, The Independent reports.
The provocation came during the opening of an art festival on Saturday, when the holy Orthodox Church was commemorating Christ’s miraculous raising of Lazarus from the dead. Speaking at the opening, Erdoğan cited the first verse of the Koran and dedicated it to the “souls of all who left us this work as an inheritance, especially Istanbul’s conqueror”—a move that he undoubtedly knew would provoke the ire of Greece, whose government has protested the Turkish government’s religious use of the former cathedral.
Agia Sophia was built in 537 by order of Emperor St. Justinian I and served as the seat of the Patriarch of Constantinople until the conquering of the imperial city in 1453 by the Ottoman Mehmed the Conqueror. The church was blasphemed when the Ottomans turned it into a mosque, using it as such until 1931. It was then secularized and opened as a museum on February 1, 1935 by then-President Atatürk. It remains one of the most glorious and most renowned images of Orthodox Christianity in the world.
Given its importance for both Orthodox Christianity and Islam, Erdoğan has often chosen precisely the Agia Sophia as a place to provoke the Orthodox and inflame tensions. There has even been talks from the president’s Islamic-leaning government about converting the museum back into a mosque. Erdoğan has stated that the edict from Atatürk on converting the mosque into a museum is a fake.
Last year, the Turkish president announced that he would read prayers in Agia Sophia on Orthodox Holy Friday. Although in the end he did not read the prayers that day, the announcement could serve no purpose other than to anger Christians.
A Muslim cleric read from the Koran inside the Agia Sophia for the first time in 85 years in 2015, and the following year the Turkish government began airing religious readings during the Islamic month of fasting, Ramadan, and the call to prayer was read out and broadcasted on television to mark the supposed revelation of the Koran to the “Prophet” Mohammed.
The Greek Foreign Ministry called the reading on television last June “an unacceptable challenge to the religious sensibilities of all Christians.”
Islamic groups also periodically gather to read prayers outside Agia Sophia and call for its re-conversion to a mosque.