(CNSNews.com) – Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan on Sunday held a photo-op inspection of Istanbul’s Hagia Sophia, five days before organized Muslim prayer is expected to resound through the renowned edifice for the first time in 85 years.
When those prayers are held, mosque officials are expected to use drapes, blinds or similar methods to cover up Christian images, mosaics and frescoes, include a famous mosaic depicting the Virgin Mary and Jesus.
Erdogan’s office posted dozens of photographs of the Islamist-leaning president inside the building, known in Turkey as Ayasofya, which he pledged during his last election campaign to change from its current status as a museum back into a mosque.
Muslim prayer will be held again for the first time from Friday this week. Erdogan has not said publicly whether he plans to be present.
Built in the sixth century, the Hagia Sophia served as the seat of eastern Christianity for around 900 years before seized by the Ottomans and converted into a mosque in 15th century.
Mustafa Kemal Ataturk in 1934 declared it a museum, as part of his secularization reform program, but Turkey’s highest administrative court on July 10 revoked his decree. Erdogan then immediately issued a fresh decree declaring the building to be a mosque once again.
The move attracted widespread expressions of dismay and criticism from Western governments and leaders of numerous Christian denominations, including Pope Francis and Orthodox primates, drawing essentially two responses from the government – one defiant, the other placatory:
--Turkey is exercising its sovereign rights and rejects attempts at outside interference.
--Turkish authorities will allow free access to all visitors to the site, will not remove the Christian icons from the building, and will do nothing to harm its status as a UNESCO world heritage site.
Exactly how this will work in practice remains to be seen, but the government authority responsible for religious affairs, known as Diyanet, says Christian iconography will be draped, and not be illuminated, during Muslim prayer times.
“The [Christian] pictures on the walls of the Hagia Sophia mosque do not constitute an obstacle for establishing prayers there healthily,” it said in a statement. “However, the mentioned pictures should be curtained or blackened during prayers by means of utilizing appropriate methods in order to make sure that the [Muslim] community members establish their prayer in awe.”
Among those portrayed in images are Jesus, Mary, John the Baptist, church fathers, and Byzantine emperors and noble figures.
Muslims revere Jesus as a “messenger” but do not recognize him as divine (Qur’an 9:30). Muslims acknowledge that Mary conceived Jesus miraculously, without human intervention, but not because Jesus was God-made-flesh, as Christians believe.
(The large round wooden panels visible in the building, the “calligraphic roundels,” installed by an Ottoman sultan in the 19th century, carry the names of Allah, Mohammed, Mohammed’s grandsons Hassan and Hussein, and four caliphates.)
Diyanet head Ali Erbas signed a protocol on Saturday with Turkey’s tourism minister governing how the landmark building will be administered both as a mosque and as a cultural site.
“I believe that not only from our country but also from all places of the world millions of people are going to visit the Hagia Sophia mosque both for establishing prayer and visiting this historical place,” Erbas said at the signing.
In an earlier television appearance, Erbas addressed the foreign criticism.
“We are an independent country. The re-opening of Hagia Sophia as a mosque is a matter of our independence, it falls within the scope of our internal affairs,” he said. “Therefore, we respect the discourses from various countries about this matter but they are not binding for us.”
He also predicted that the clamor would quieten down quickly.
The Russian government already appears to have softened its tone.
A week ago foreign ministry spokeswoman Maria Zakharova said Russia regretted the reversal of a decision by Ataturk that had “turned Hagia Sophia into a symbol of peace and inter-religious accord.”
But on Friday, Kremlin spokesman Dmitry Peskov in a radio interview observed that Russian visitors will still be allowed to visit, and would even benefit from the fact that entrance will be free. (An entrance fee of 100 Turkish lira, about $14.50, will no longer be charged under the new arrangements.)
Peskov acknowledged that the government’s position differed from that of the Russian Orthodox Church.
On Friday, the Russian Orthodox Church synod ended a two-day meeting with a statement expressing “its profound regret over the decision of the state leadership of Turkey to revoke the museum status of Hagia Sophia and to give it to the Muslim community for public worship.”
It said the decision, which took no heed of earlier petitions and pleas, “has hurt religious feelings of millions of Christians all over the world, which can cause disturbance of interfaith balance and impair mutual understanding between Christians and Muslims both in and beyond Turkey.”
The synod voiced the hope that the Turkish authorities would take the steps necessary to “preserve the priceless Christian mosaics which have miraculously survived to this day and will ensure access to them for Christian pilgrims.”