Dinayet chief Ali Erbaş led Friday prayers holding a sword (pictured) engraved with a Qurʼānic verse on the blade. He plans to set up a madrassa inside the former Christian basilica to educate a “pious generation". Amid fear and persecution, Turkey’s Christian Orthodox are increasingly concerned and uncertain about their future.
Istanbul (AsiaNews) – Ali Erbaş, Turkey’s highest Islamic clerical leader, has played a key role in the political and religious transformation of Istanbul’s Hagia Sophia into a mosque, a pet project of Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan.
Head of the Directorate (or Presidency) of Religious Affairs (normally referred to simply as the Diyanet[*]) since 2017, Ali Erbaş led the two Friday prayers held so far in the Christian basilica holding a sword (pictured) engraved with a verse from the Qurʼān on the blade.
Until early July, Hagia Sophia was a museum under the jurisdiction of the Ministry of Culture and Tourism. Now it falls within the purview of the Diyanet and Erbaş.
The 59-year-old Turkish theologian is a powerful figure linked to the “Sultan" Erdoğan. And he has great plans for Hagia Sophia, which has become a symbol of the president's nationalism and Islam policy.
Erbaş in fact wants to set up a madrassa, a Qurʼānic school. For him, mosques are “schools" to educate "young people and children", a notion that fits with Erdoğan's plan to create a "pious generation".
Created in 1924 to control Islam, the Dinayet has become over time a means to Islamise Turkish society. Responsible directly to the president, the agency monitors 84,684 mosques around the country, plus 2,000 abroad, and pays the salaries of imams, theologians, muezzins and preachers. It has a substantial budget of around US$ 1.65 billion with 170,000 staff.
As French daily Le Monde points out, the fatwas (religious edicts) issued by Diyanet are often controversial. in 2018 one such edicts said that girls could marry as early as nine, sparking outrage. Faced with a backlash, the Directorate dropped the fatwa.
Ali Erbaş himself had to scrap some parts of the sermons delivered in Hagia Sophia in Friday prayers, in particular where, praising the "conquest", he attacked Atatürk, modern Turkey’s founding father, for turning the Christian basilica, which had become mosque following the Ottoman conquest of Constantinople, into museum.
President Erdoğan immediately came to Erbaş’s recue stating that "attacking Diyanet's boss is like attacking the state. What he said in his speech is correct in all its parts.”
In a context of growing radicalisation in the country, the feeling of restlessness and uncertainty among Orthodox Christians is getting stronger. Those who still live in Istanbul are what is left of a community that goes back almost two thousand years, this handful of "Rums" are mostly elderly, living on the margins of society.
From 160,000 at the beginning of the 20th century, Greek Stambouliotes now number just over 2,000, crushed by Turkish-Muslim nationalism and persecutions that have not let up throughout the past century.
For many of them, the conversion of Hagia Sophia into a mosque evokes visions of demons, persecutions and death and the presence of Ecumenical Patriarch Bartholomew I is of little use to safeguard the city’s Christian culture and heritage.
What is more, with a growing number of mixed marriages, the latest challenge to Turkey’s Christians is represented by assimilation into Turkish society.
[*] Turkish: Diyanet İşleri Başkanlığı.