Friday, November 29, 2013

Turkey drops a screen over Christianity

Many of Turkey’s historic monuments have followed the same path through the centuries: Byzantine church to Ottoman mosque to secular museum. This July, the 13th-century Hagia Sophia church in the eastern city of Trabzon added a new phase: return to mosque.
While the conversion of this Hagia Sophia – not the more famous structure by the same name in Istanbul – to a house of Muslim worship reflects the increasingly religious approach of Turkey's government, the impact on the tourism industry has been buffered by an uptick in foreign visitors from the Middle East, who are largely disinterested in the traditional tourist landmarks.  
On a recent Saturday afternoon, Hüseyin Buyuk, a local working for the Historic Hagia Sophia Association, ushered visitors through the divided entrance. Local Muslim worshipers went to the right, removing their shoes before stepping onto the red carpet inside, where large white screens shield Christian icons from their eyes, while non-Muslim tourists went to the left, following an uncarpeted passageway behind the screens to gaze upon bright frescoes depicting Christ. 
From 1964 until December 2012, Trabzon’s Hagia Sophia functioned as a museum. But after a court ruling that, in the legacy of Ottoman Sultan Mehmet II, the building was rightfully a mosque, the Turkish Ministry of Culture was evicted. On July 5, the late-Byzantine church reopened as a mosque in time for the first Friday prayer of Ramadan.
“It has always been a house of worship,” Mr. Buyuk says, supporting the court ruling. “We already have a cultural museum.” 
The Hagia Sophia was the second such museum to be converted recently – Iznik’s Hagia Sophia was reopened as a mosque in July 2012 – and it may not be the last. The conservative opposition Nationalist Movement Party (MHP) introduced a bill Nov. 8 to resume Muslim prayer in Istanbul’s famed 4th-century basilica, Hagia Sophia, first converted to a museum in 1935.
Dr. Şükrü Yarcan, a tourism specialist at Nisantasi University, says the restoration of Muslim prayer in historical sites like Trabzon’s Hagia Sophia is unlikely to stop non-Muslim tourists from visiting them, but it contributes to foreign impressions that the country is growing more religious, particularly in more distant regions like North America and East Asia. 
“They might think that Turkey is going to be an Islamic country and they might refrain from coming,” said Yarcan. “They might have an image of Turkey as a negative one.”

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