A new political card played by the AKP government in Ankara with the presidential decision of conducting the first Friday prayers at Hagia Sophia on July 24. The decision followed several divisions in the government and escalation in the competition between AKP and its former members. It was also an attempt to divert the attention from the internal crises in the country, especially in light of the poor living conditions.
During the past few years, the ruling party in Turkey has witnessed significant following the resignation of the former Prime Minister, Ahmet Davutoglu from the party presidency and the resignation of the former deputy prime minister, Ali Babacan from the party, where they formed two opposition parties, and that affected the popularity of President Erdogan among Turkish voters.
Internal Card and Cover for the Crisis
Choosing this time for such a decision stems from Erdogan’s desire to divert the attention from the internal crises, particularly the economic crisis that might affect the result of next elections.
Thus, the Turkish government is trying to cover the internal crises by creating external ones that tickles the Turks’ feelings.
Some analysts say that Turkey is cloning the Iranian regime, which is based on religious discourse and practices that provoke the international community in order to gain more power. The government’s decision regarding Hagia Sophia will increase Turkey’s international isolation; although at the meantime Turkish economy needs to be more open to the world to attract more investments.
The Turkish economy is suffering from a major crisis, represented in the increase in inflation rates by 10.97 % during last April. Additionally, the unemployment rates were increased to 13.6% early this year. Turkish opposition sources revealed that 1,700,000 small, medium and large establishments and institutions have closed.
Turning Hagia Sophia into a mosque is part of the government’s tendency to turn the attention from the internal arena. During the past few months, the government created many external problems with Greece, Cyprus and Libya, in attempts to link the country’s crises to these problems not the government’s policy.
Turkey’s crisis with Greece and Cyprus is resulted by gas exploration operations in the eastern Mediterranean. At the beginning of the current year, the Turkish-Italian relations were strained due to the security agreement and the demarcation of the maritime borders signed between Turkish and Libyan GNA, which Italy considered as an encroachment on its maritime borders.
According to Ayman Fouad, a professor of Islamic history at Al-Azhar University, the goals of Hagia Sophia are not limited in the internal borders of Turkey; they rather aim at showing Erdogan as an Islamic leader, by trying to win more sympathy from Muslims throughout the world.
The State Council in Turkey, which is the highest court in the country, had approved turning the former Church of Hagia Sophia into a mosque in a step supported by President Recep Tayyip Erdogan, nullifying a government decision dating back to 1934, which turned the site into a museum.
The Turkish decision places the Islamic world in a provocative position, especially for the Orthodox Christians, who consider the Hagia Sophia a religious site connected to their beliefs, and thus, the Turkish decision, increases the intricacies of international relations, especially the international Islamic relations and it adds to the world a new file of conflict, but this time it carries religious dimensions.
International Stances and EU Rejection
The western positions that reject Hagia Sophia’s decision confirm Turkey’s isolation.
Nutis Marias, the head of Greece party-Alternative Road, describes Turkey’s decision as a provocative and anti-history step, calling on the European Union to impose severe sanctions on Ankara.
Marias indicates that turning the cathedral into a mosque violates the decision of UNESCO, which classified it as a World Heritage site, stressing that the Hagia Sophia is not Erdogan’s spoil, it belongs to all of humanity, and that the Turkish move insults not only Christians, but all humanity.
Simultaneously, the Cypriot President, Nikos Anastasiades, describes Erdogan’s decision as an abuse to a world heritage site, adding on his Facebook page that: “The Turkish State Council’s decision to turn Hagia Sophia into a mosque is another problem for the entire civilized world and its international organizations, so the decision is a deviation from history and a desecration of a site that has special emotional value for all Christians on earth.”
The Turkish government’s international allies also expressed their rejection of the decision. Russia expressed regret for the decision, while a spokesman for the Orthodox Church, Vladimir Legwaida, accused the Turkish government of ignoring the concerns of millions of Christians, stressing that the decision may spark greater divisions.
Josep Borrell, the high representative of the EU for foreign affairs has criticized the decision of the Turkish State Council, saying that it nullified one of modern Turkey’s historical decisions. He added that President Erdogan’s decision is regrettable.