In Turkey, the transformation of the Saint-Sauveur-in-Chora church into a mosque, “new emblem of political Islam”

In Turkey, the transformation of the Saint-Sauveur-in-Chora church into a mosque, “new emblem of political Islam”

The cross : Four years after the reconversion of the former Hagia Sophia, it is the turn of Saint-Sauveur-in-Chora, the second emblematic Byzantine church of Istanbul, to reopen its doors as a mosque. Through this decision, what is President Erdogan targeting?

Dorothée Schmid: Symbolically, it is already a way of targeting Christian heritage, while Turkey – a 99% Muslim country – today very closely regulates the rights of religious minorities. Saint-Sauveur-in-Chora is a small Byzantine church, mainly known for its very beautiful frescoes (of the Resurrection, and other biblical stories, etc.). This religious heritage probably had to be covered by tarpaulins, while the place of worship has just reopened its doors as a mosque after four years of work.

Like its much more touristy “big sister”, Hagia Sophia in 1934, Saint-Sauveur was also transformed into a museum in 1948, in the wake of Atatürk's presidency (1881-1938). We can thus see Erdogan's desire to attack secularism and the country's Kemalist heritage. But beyond that, this decision is above all part of a national project to redefine Turkey's identity as a Muslim country, where the social culture is to practice Islam.

What is still in Erdogan’s interest? To court his electoral base a little more?

DS: It is, for him, a way of leaving his mark on Istanbul, the city of which he was mayor. (between 1994 and 1998, Editor’s note), and to reaffirm that he can continue to do what he wants there. Symbolically, ancient Constantinople was also the capital of the Ottoman Empire, in the wake of the fall of the Byzantine Empire in 1453 which led to the reconversion of many churches into mosques. We therefore place ourselves here in a historical narrative of occupation of the territory of the whole of Anatolia.

While Istanbul is in the hands of the main opposition party, Saint-Sauveur is finally located in a district that remains with the AKP (Islamo-conservative party in power, Editor’s note) at the end of the last municipal elections at the end of March, during which he was closely followed by the Kemalist opposition. It is therefore a way for him to deal them a new setback – and to forcefully reaffirm the roots of political Islam in the country.

Beyond these two high-profile churches, are such conversions of buildings common in Turkey?

DS: We must already remember that there are very few churches open to worship – or only sporadically – in Turkey. Hagia Sophia and Saint-Sauveur had, as we have said, become museums. This battle for reappropriation thus focused on an already “neutralized” Christian heritage. Not without a certain bad faith, the government also sought to argue that they could be considered Turkish Muslim heritage, to the extent that they had already been transformed into mosques after the fall of Constantinople (2). This desire to occupy the land also results in the construction of places of worship, such as the very emblematic Çamlica mosque completed in 2019 on the Asian side of Istanbul.

Is this a recurring demand in Islamist circles?

DS: Radical Islamist associations are indeed seeking to push Erdogan in this direction, and the head of state finds himself overwhelmed on his right by Islamist activists who are more Islamist than him. In the last municipal elections, the Turkish Islamist party Yeniden Refah received almost 6% of votes at the national level. The Turkish president is weakened today; he sought to compensate for the loss of part of his centrist electorate by reaching out to the ultranationalists – but the latter believe that he is not strong enough, and does not go far enough.

But what seems interesting to me, on the contrary, is that the polls actually show a downward trend in Muslim practice in Turkey, that is to say a slight movement towards secularization of the country. But does the more “secularized” practicing Muslim seek to mobilize in this fight for the reappropriation of Christian symbols like Saint-Sauveur? No, because he fears the diplomatic repercussions that this could generate.

How is this decision viewed internationally?

DS: The indignation is not as strong as that raised at the time of the transformation of Hagia Sophia. Greece tried to work to get Erdogan to reverse this decision, but without success – even though the two countries had many other concerns on the negotiating table. Western countries seem to believe that the stakes are not worth weakening their bilateral relationship with Ankara. But I think that the mobilization of cultural circles – and in particular UNESCO – can play an important role in trying to protect this threatened heritage.

(1) Turkey in 100 questionsTallandier, 2023.

(2) In 1453 for Sainte-Sophie and in 1511 for Saint-Sauveur.

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