Turkey — The president of Turkey on Friday formally reconverted Istanbul’s sixth-century Hagia Sophia into a mosque and declared it open for Muslim worship, hours after a high court annulled a 1934 decision that had made the religious landmark a museum.
The decision sparked deep dismay among Orthodox Christians. Originally a cathedral, Hagia Sophia was turned into a mosque after Istanbul’s conquest by the Ottoman Empire but had been a museum for the last 86 years, drawing millions of tourists annually.
There was jubilation outside the terracotta-hued structure with cascading domes and four minarets. Dozens of people awaiting the court’s ruling chanted “Allah is great!” when the news broke.
In the capital of Ankara, legislators stood and applauded as the decision was read in Parliament.
Turkey’s high administrative court threw its weight behind a petition brought by a religious group and annulled the 1934 Cabinet decision that turned the site into a museum. Within hours, President Recep Tayyip Erdogan signed a decree handing over Hagia Sophia to Turkey’s Religious Affairs Presidency.
He posted the decree on his Twitter account, with the words “may it be beneficial.”
Erdogan had spoken in favor of turning the hugely symbolic UNESCO World Heritage site back into a mosque despite widespread international criticism, including from the United States and Orthodox Christian leaders, who had urged Turkey to retain its status as a museum as a symbol of solidarity among faiths and cultures.
The decision threatens to deepen tensions with neighboring Greece, whose culture minister, Lina Mendoni, denounced the move as “an open challenge to the entire civilized world that recognizes the unique value and universality of the monument.”
“Hagia Sophia, located in Istanbul, is a monument to all mankind, regardless of religion,” she said.
Cyprus “strongly condemns Turkey’s actions on Hagia Sophia in its effort to distract domestic opinion and calls on Turkey to respect its international obligations,” tweeted Foreign Minister Nikos Christodoulides.
Vladimir Dzhabarov, deputy head of the foreign affairs committee in the Russian upper house of parliament, called the action “a mistake.”
“Turning it into a mosque will not do anything for the Muslim world. It does not bring nations together, but on the contrary brings them into collision,” he said.
The debate hits at the heart of Turkey’s religious-secular divide. Nationalist and conservative groups in Turkey have long yearned to hold prayers at Hagia Sophia, which they regard as part of the Muslim Ottoman legacy. Others believe it should remain a museum, as a symbol of Christian and Muslim solidarity.
“It was a structure that brought together both Byzantine and Ottoman histories,” said Zeynep Kizildag, a 27-year-old social worker, who did not support the conversion. “The decision to turn it into a mosque is like erasing 1,000 years of history, in my opinion.”
Garo Paylan, an ethnic Armenian member of Turkey’s Parliament tweeted that it was “a sad day for Christians (and) for all who believe in a pluralist Turkey.”
“The decision to convert Hagia Sophia into a mosque will make life more difficult for Christians here and for Muslims in Europe,” he wrote. “Hagia Sophia was a symbol of our rich history. Its dome was big enough for all.”
The group that brought the case to court had contested the legality of the 1934 decision by the modern Turkish republic’s secular government ministers, arguing the building was the personal property of Ottoman Sultan Mehmet II, who conquered Istanbul in 1453.
“I was not surprised at all that the court weighed to sanction Erdogan’s moves because these days Erdogan gets from Turkish courts what Erdogan wants,” said Soner Cagaptay, of the Washington Institute.
“Erdogan wants to use Hagia Sophia’s conversion into a mosque to rally his right-wing base,” said Cagaptay, the author of “Erdogan’s Empire.” “But I don’t think this strategy will work. I think that short of economic growth, nothing will restore Erdogan’s popularity.”
The Istanbul-based Ecumenical Patriarch Bartholomew I, considered the spiritual leader of the world’s Orthodox Christians, warned last month that the building’s conversion into a mosque “will turn millions of Christians across the world against Islam.”
Patriarch Kirill, the leader of the Russian Orthodox Church, called for “prudence” and the preservation of the “current neutral status” for the Hagia Sophia, which he said was one of Christianity’s “devoutly venerated symbols.”
“Russia is a country with the majority of the population professing Orthodoxy, and so, what may happen to Hagia Sophia will inflict great pain on the Russian people,” he said in a statement.
U.S. State Secretary Mike Pompeo said last month the landmark should remain a museum to serve as bridge between faiths and cultures. His comments sparked a rebuke from Turkey’s Foreign Ministry, which said Hagia Sophia was a domestic issue of Turkish national sovereignty.
Erdogan, a devout Muslim, has frequently used the Hagia Sophia issue to drum up support for his Islamic-rooted party.
Some Islamic prayers have been held in the museum in recent years. In a major symbolic move, Erdogan recited the opening verse of the Quran there in 2018.
Built under Byzantine Emperor Justinian, Hagia Sophia was the main seat of the Eastern Orthodox church for centuries, where emperors were crowned amid ornate marble and mosaic decorations.
The minarets were added later and the building was turned into an imperial mosque following the 1453 Ottoman conquest of Constantinople — the city that is now called Istanbul.
The building opened its doors as a museum in 1935, a year after the Council of Ministers’ decision.
Mosaics depicting Jesus, Mary and Christian saints that were plastered over in line with Islamic rules were uncovered through arduous restoration work for the museum. Hagia Sophia was the most popular museum in Turkey last year, drawing more than 3.7 million visitors.
Before the decision, UNESCO, the United Nations’ cultural body, had called on Turkish authorities to engage in dialogue before taking any decision that might impact the site’s “universal value.”
UNESCO said it must be notified of any change to the status of Hagia Sophia, adding that changes may have to be reviewed by the World Heritage Committee.
North Korea is facing a severe food shortage
Addressing a meeting of senior leaders, Mr Kim said: “The people’s food situation is now getting tense”.
He said the agricultural sector had failed to meet its grain targets due to typhoons last year, which caused flooding.
There are reports that food prices have spiked, with NK News reporting that a kilogram of bananas costs $45 (£32).
North Korea has closed its borders to contain the spread of Covid-19.
Trade with China has plummeted as a result. North Korea relies on China for food, fertiliser and fuel.
North Korea is also struggling under international sanctions, imposed because of its nuclear programmes.
The authoritarian leader of the single-party state talked about the food situation at the ruling Workers’ Party central committee which started this week in the capital Pyongyang.
During the meeting, Mr Kim said that national industrial output had grown by a quarter compared to the same period last year.
Officials were expected to discuss relations with the US and South Korea during the event but no details have been released yet.
In April, Mr Kim made a a rare admission of looming hardship, calling on officials to “wage another, more difficult ‘Arduous March’ in order to relieve our people of the difficulty, even a little”.
The Arduous March is a term used by North Korea officials to refer to the country’s struggle during the 1990s famine, when the fall of the Soviet Union left North Korea without crucial aid.
The total number of North Koreans who starved to death at the time is not known, but estimates range up to three million.
It is highly unusual for Kim Jong-un to publicly acknowledge a food shortage. But this is a North Korean leader who has already admitted that his economic plan has failed.
The problem for Mr Kim is that when he took over from his father, he promised his people a more prosperous future. He said they would have meat on their tables and access to electricity. This has not happened. Now he’s having to prime the population for more hard work.
He is trying to tie this into the global pandemic, and state media reported that he pointed out to party officials that the situation across the world is getting “worse and worse”. With so little access to outside information, he can paint a picture of things being bad everywhere – not just in sealed off North Korea. He also described efforts to beat Covid-19 as a “protracted war”. That signals that border closures are not easing any time soon.
That is the concern of many aid organisations. The sealed border has prevented some food and medicine getting through. Most NGOs have had to leave the country, unable to get staff and supplies in or out.
Pyongyang has always called for “self-reliance”. It has closed itself off, just as it may need assistance and it is unlikely to ask for help. If it continues to push away all offers of international assistance, as ever, it may be the people who pay the price.
Christian pastor killed over outreach to Muslims: ‘Today Allah has judged you’
A radical Muslim has confessed to police in Uganda that he killed a 70-year-old pastor earlier this month because of Allah’s word to kill all infidels who mislead Muslims by sharing the Gospel.
The accused, identified as Imam Uthman Olingha, told police he killed Bishop Francis Obo, senior pastor of Mpingire Pentecostal Revival Church Ministries International in Odapako village Mpingire Sub-County, on June 11, Morning Star News reported.
Olingha was one of the Muslim extremists dressed in Islamic attire who stopped Pastor Obo and his wife on their way home from a market at about 8:30 p.m., his wife, Christine Obo, said.
“Olingha openly confessed to police that he can’t regret that he killed the bishop because he did it in the cause of Allah’s word to kill all infidels who mislead Muslims. He added that Allah will be with him in jail, but the kafiri (infidel) deserved the killing.”
One of the attackers told the pastor, who oversaw 17 churches across the region and had been sharing Christ with Muslims, that he was an “infidel” who caused Muslims to leave Islam and “blasphemes the words of Allah,” and that, “Today Allah has judged you.”
A week before the murder, the couple had invited a former Islamic teacher to testify on how he became a Christian at their church, Christine Obo recalled. Area Muslims were also upset with the church because it offered the former Islamic teacher a pig as part of a micro-enterprise livestock project that helped raise funds for the church, she added.
Describing the incident, she said, “As I moved a few meters in a hurry trying to save my life, I heard a little noise and wailing from my husband and realized that his life was in danger.”
When she reached home, she was trembling and unable to speak, she said, and her children took her to a hospital. When she regained consciousness the following morning, she told her oldest son and his siblings to go to the site.
“Reaching there, they were shocked and fearful as they found a big number of Christians and relatives gathered around the dead body mourning their bishop after being murdered by Muslims,” Obo was quoted as saying.
According to World Watch Monitor, a homegrown Islamist rebel movement organizing in the neighboring Democratic Republic of Congo has emboldened Ugandan radicals to persecute Christians.
Voice of the Martyrs earlier noted that Uganda’s history has made it vulnerable to the influence of Islam as “Arab countries also continue to invest significant resources into furthering Muslim interests in the country.”
In Uganda, persecution is mainly seen in the form of local Islamists persecuting Christians, mostly in areas where “radicals have been steadily encroaching.”
“Radical Islam’s influence has grown steadily, and many Christians within the majority-Muslim border regions are facing severe persecution, especially those who convert from Islam,” a Voice of the Martyrs factsheet explains. “Despite the risks, evangelical churches in Uganda have responded by reaching out to their neighbors; many churches are training leaders how to share the Gospel with Muslims and care for those who are persecuted after they become Christians.”
Last December, a mob of Muslim extremists in Uganda reportedly killed 41-year-old former imam Yusuf Kintu a week after he converted to Christianity.
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North Korea is facing a severe food shortage
Addressing a meeting of senior leaders, Mr Kim said: “The people’s food situation is now getting tense”. He said the...
Christian pastor killed over outreach to Muslims: ‘Today Allah has judged you’
A radical Muslim has confessed to police in Uganda that he killed a 70-year-old pastor earlier this month because of...
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