After Hagia Sophia, Erdogan Voices Jerusalem Ambitions | Opinion

Do not underestimate the implications of Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan's decision to convert the Hagia Sophia into a mosque last week. Erdogan has a clear sectarian vision for Turkey and Islamist ambitions for the Middle East and beyond. For that pursuit, Hagia Sophia's symbolic importance is almost without comparison.

The Hagia Sophia served as the seat of the ecumenical patriarchate for the world's Orthodox Christians for almost a millennium, until Ottoman Sultan Mehmet II converted it into a mosque following his conquest of Constantinople in 1453. The cathedral's conversion then was meant to send a clear message that Christians were to be treated as subservient to their Muslim overlords, and—be sure—that is exactly Erdogan's message, now.

Mustafa Kemal Ataturk, the founder of the Turkish Republic, knew well the symbolism of the Ottoman practice of converting churches following conquest. That is why he transformed the Hagia Sophia into a museum in 1934 out of a commitment to build a secular polity of equal citizens and peaceful coexistence with the West. He assured the preservation of the Hagia Sophia, with its multi-layered Christian and Muslim pasts, and also brilliantly defused interfaith tensions by protecting it as humanity's common heritage—a museum.

Erdogan is attempting to stoke the tensions that Ataturk relieved.

This is why the Turkish president signed the decision to change the Hagia Sophia's jurisdiction from the Ministry of Culture to the Directorate of Religious Affairs within minutes of last week's ruling by Turkey's Council of State, which effectively annulled the 1934 cabinet decree that transformed the site into a museum.

But Erdogan's efforts did not end there. Hardly anyone in the West noticed his fiery speech later that day. He addressed the nation, appearing between an image of the Hagia Sophia and Sultan Mehmet II's endowment deed that transformed the cathedral into a mosque after its conquest by the Ottomans.

The Turkish president made a half-hearted effort to dispel fears by announcing that the Hagia Sophia would be open to people of all faiths and nationalities. By the end of his speech, however, with clear envy for Mehmet II, he audaciously addressed the world of Islam, "from Bukhara to Andalusia," with a promise that "the resurrection of Hagia Sophia heralds the liberation of the al-Aqsa Mosque" in Jerusalem.

There was a stark contrast between Erdogan's social media statements in English and Arabic tweeted by the Presidential Office, with the former expressing a "shared heritage of humanity" and the latter reiterating his al-Aqsa ambitions. Erdogan wants the West to think he can be trusted with the power of NATO (and economic investment), while he also wants Islamists to know he is with them.

Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan
Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan ADEM ALTAN/AFP via Getty Images

Is it any wonder that Muslim Brotherhood extremists described the conversion as "a historic step?" Similarly, Hamas, the militant Palestinian group designated as a foreign terrorist organization by the U.S. in 1997, was among the first to respond, extending its support for Erdogan's conversion of the Hagia Sophia.

Erdogan's speech was clearly taken by other Islamists as having jihadist undertones.

Erdogan's antagonistic rhetoric is particularly alarming, given his enabling of Muslim Brotherhood efforts from the Middle East to North Africa. He has recruited jihadists in Syria and in Libya, and—along the way—he has granted impunity to proxies persecuting vulnerable ethnic and religious minorities.

In stark contrast to Ataturk's vision of building a secular democratic state in a Muslim-majority country, Erdogan offers a majoritarian model, which will deepen supremacist impulses across the region.

Of course, he also knew he would be criticized. So Erdogan made an effort to counteract those fears by boasting about the 435 active churches and synagogues in Turkey. Turkey's semi-official Anadolu Agency proudly tweeted that Turkey enjoys a much higher number of minority faith houses of worship than Western nations. What they both miss is that Turkey's Christians and Jews, who used to make up over 20 percent of the population just a century ago, are now almost at the brink of extinction— a trend that will likely only intensify.

This is all why Ankara is the only NATO member to be placed on the "Special Watch List" of the U.S. Commission on International Religious Freedom. Since Turkey's failed coup attempt in 2016, there has also been a systematic effort to decimate Turkey's Protestant community by denying entry or residence permits to church workers. The Turkish government's heavy-handed meddling in the election of the Armenian Apostolic patriarch is also alarming for other religious minorities, including the Greek Orthodox patriarchate.

Keenly aware of the risks at hand, both the ecumenical patriarch and the pope have expressed their concern, with the former warning that the Hagia Sophia conversion portends "confrontation and conflict."

No one knows what comes next. But, one thing is sure: Everything else is subject alone to Erdogan's personal ambition, including the country's prosperity and peace.

Rev. Johnnie Moore is a commissioner on the U.S. Commission for International Religious Freedom (USCIRF) and the president of The Congress of Christian Leaders. Dr. Tugba Tanyeri-Erdemir is a research associate at the University of Pittsburgh's department of anthropology. They both serve on the Anti-Defamation League's Task Force on Middle East Minorities.

The views expressed in this article are the writers' own and are not necessarily reflective of the organizations they represent, including USCIRF.