July 27, 2020
The sermon delivered by Professor Ali Erbaş, the President of Turkish Religious Affairs Directorate (Diyanet), at the opening of Hagia Sophia Grand Mosque has rightly aroused indignation, anger among those who remain attached to Turkey’s founding principles and Ataturk’s legacy. Because he said, “The property of endowment is untouchable according to our belief, the ones who touch them are burned; the condition of the person who endows it must be realized definitely, those who do not realize it are going to be cursed.”
He did not call names, but it was obvious who he had in mind. Initially it was suggested that he went off script. But the foregoing is in the text of his sermon published on the Diyanet website.[i] In other words, he either did not go off script or he is standing by he said.
In the beginning of his sermon Mr. Erbaş saluted all those he connected with the conquest of Istanbul and the Hagia Sophia. He passed over Ataturk’s saving the city and the country from foreign occupation since he was going to mention him without uttering his name in the context of the inviolability of foundations’ acts.
Mr. Erbaş and commentators on state media glorified the Hagia Sophia throughout the day. Mr. Erbaş said,
“With its life more than fifteen centuries, the Hagia Sophia is one of the most valuable places of science, wisdom and worship in the human history. This ancient place of worship is a wonderful expression of servitude and submission to Allah, the Allah of the worlds.
“Fatih Sultan Mehmed Han handed down this great place of worship, the apple of his eye, to believers by endowing it in condition that it is going to stay as mosque until the Judgment Day.”
Mr. Erbaş, in saluting those he associated with the Hagia Sophia, also mentioned Great Architect Sinan. He said, “Salam to the master of architects, the great artist Architect Sinan who furnished the Hagia Sophia with minarets and implemented the reinforcement works which ensured that the Hagia Sophia stands for centuries.”
Architect Sinan (1490-1588) indeed did all of that. And he did a lot more. According to Encyclopedia Britannica, he is most celebrated of all Ottoman architects, whose ideas, perfected in the construction of mosques and other buildings, served as the basic themes for virtually all later Turkish religious and civic architecture. His three most famous works are the Şehzade and Süleymaniye mosques in Istanbul, and the Selimiye mosque in Edirne.
The Hagia Sophia is indeed an architectural masterpiece. It is a property prominently inscribed on UNESCO’s World Heritage List. Last year it welcomed 3,727, 361 visitors.
In his sermon of last Friday Mr. Erbaş said, “That the Hagia Sophia is re-opened for worship is the conversion of a great mosque, which embraced the believers for five centuries into its original status as a requirement of its historical place.”
The reality, however, is different. The Hagia Sophia may have served as a mosque for five centuries and may serve as a mosque again but it was built as a Byzantine cathedral. That was its original status. We need to remember that Great Architect Sinan and others have also left us enough great monuments we can be proud of. And yes, there may also be mosques turned into churches, places of worship neglected, damaged, misused, destroyed and the reality is none of that has helped foster interfaith harmony.
Professor Erbaş in his Friday sermon, carrying a sword in his hand, invited all humanity to justice, peace, compassion, and equity. Yet, all in all, he only deepened Turkey’s dangerous fault line between those who revere Ataturk as the hero of our War of Independence and founder of modern Turkey and those with no recollection of the country’s recent history, let alone its long past, or who are simply in denial.
Ataturk was Turkey’s fortune and assaults on his legacy constitute the worst kind of ingratitude.