Istanbul's Ancient Chora Church Reopens as Mosque Amid Controversy

Turkey's President Erdogan reopened the ancient Chora church in Istanbul as a mosque after restoration work. The 4th-century Byzantine church, a UNESCO World Heritage site, was previously a museum, sparking controversy and criticism from church leaders and Western countries.

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Bijay Laxmi
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Istanbul's Ancient Chora Church Reopens as Mosque Amid Controversy

Istanbul's Ancient Chora Church Reopens as Mosque Amid Controversy

On May 11, 2024, Turkey's President Recep Tayyip Erdogan officially reopened the ancientChora churchin Istanbul as a mosque, following lengthy restoration work. The conversion of this 4th-century Byzantine church, a UNESCO World Heritage site renowned for its intricate mosaics and frescoes, has sparked controversy and criticism from church leaders and Western countries who argue it risks deepening religious divides.

Why this matters: The conversion of historic religious sites into mosques has significant implications for religious tolerance and cultural heritage preservation, and may exacerbate existing tensions between Turkey and Western nations. This trend also raises concerns about the erosion of cultural diversity and the politicization of religious sites.

The Chora church, also known as Kariye in Turkish, was originally converted into a mosque after the Ottoman conquest of Istanbul in 1453. In 1945, it was made into a museum. Erdogan signed an order in 2020 to transform it back into a mosque, a move reminiscent of the conversion of Istanbul's iconic Hagia Sophia that same year.

Erdogan remotely presided over the reopening ceremony from his palace in Ankara, saying, "May it bring good fortune." The event was televised, showing worshipers praying inside the newly converted mosque. Some of the well-preserved mosaics and frescoes were concealed with curtains in the prayer section, in line with Muslim traditions.

Worshipers expressed excitement at the mosque's opening. Musa Tombul, one of the first to pray there, said,"I have been waiting for its opening for four years. I was honored to pray in such a place. "Another worshiper, Haydar Senbahar, stated,"We thank God for showing us these days. Hopefully, we will come here from time to time and perform our prayers."

However, the conversion has drawn strong criticism. Greek Prime Minister Kyriakos Mitsotakis condemned the move, saying it "insults Istanbul's rich history." Experts like Burcin Altinsay Ozguner, Turkey head of the International Council on Monuments and Sites, emphasized that maintaining the Chora church as a museum is the best way to make its unique artifacts available to researchers. She suggested there are political motives behind the conversion, as there is no clear need for another mosque in the area.

The Chora church's transformation into the Kariye Mosque marks another historic Istanbul site that has undergone a religious conversion under Erdogan's presidency. Critics view these moves as efforts to consolidate the conservative religious support base of Erdogan's ruling party. Despite the controversy, the ancient church begins a new chapter as a place of Muslim worship, while still preserving its stunning Byzantine mosaics and frescoes.