On 10 April 2015, for the first time in 85 years, a Turkish imam recited passages from the Quran at Friday prayers in Hagia Sophia in Istanbul.
It’s been 85 years because at the end of World War I, which the Ottoman Empire lost when it sided with Imperial Germany, Turkish leader Mustafa Kemal Ataturk embraced a European-style public secularism, proclaiming a modern state and religious tolerance for all faiths.
Hagia Sophia, an iconic structure on the Istanbul cityscape, was turned into a national museum. The building had originally been a Byzantine Christian cathedral, constructed in the sixth century. (Hagia Sophia means “holy wisdom” as well as “Saint Sophia.”) When the Muslim Ottomans conquered the city, then called Constantinople, in 1453, Hagia Sophia was turned into a mosque. It was used as a mosque until the Ottoman Empire was defeated and dismantled after World War I.
As a national museum, Hagia Sophia was not used for organized worship, but was open for visitation by people of all faiths, or none. We can expect that to end soon, however (regardless of what Turkey may say about it officially). The recitation of the Quran in Hagia Sophia means it’s only a matter of time before the building is reclaimed for Islam.
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Top officials of the Erdogan regime attended the Quran recitation on 10 April, including Mehmet Gormez, the head of Turkey’s Diyanet, the ministry of religious affairs. The Diyanet has been in the news recently because of its ambitious program to build new mosques around the world. A total of 18 are currently planned, and some readers will remember that when Prime Minister Erdogan visited Cuba in March 2015, he presented a request to Raoul Castro to build a new mosque there.
Turkey is building a huge new mosque in Tirana, Albania, for example – a nation of about 300,000 people – which will reportedly accommodate 4,500 worshippers at a time. The mosque in Tirana will be the largest one in the Balkans, and its construction is naturally of concern to many Christians in Greece and the former-Yugoslav nations. They remember – if the rest of the West doesn’t – the centuries in which their ancestors fought against domination by the Ottomans. A bare 100 years on from World War I, they see the outlines of predatory Islamism taking shape again.
The Cooperation and Coordination Agency of Turkey (or TIKA; also an arm of the government) has been restoring old mosques around the Balkans as well. Mr. Gormez of the Diyanet is likely to preside over their reopening ceremonies, and imams from Turkey are appointed to lead them.
It’s in this context that we should place the Turks’ construction of a new mosque in Lanham, Maryland. As noted here, the mosque is identified as a project of the Turkish government. Reportedly, the $100 million Islamic center and mosque will “become the largest and most striking example of Islamic architecture in the western hemisphere” when it is finished.
Erdogan visited it in 2013, during its construction, and now plans to come back and attend its opening in 2015.
According to the foreign minister of Turkey (Mevlut Cavusoglu), who visited the mosque when he was here a week ago, Obama agreed during a phone call with Erdogan to join him for the opening ceremony.
Obama did name Erdogan as one of his “top five international friends” a few years ago. PJ Tatler points out, however, that Today’s Zaman now has U.S. officials denying the foreign minister’s claim that Obama agreed to join Erdogan. Debra Heine suggests that the administration’s response – Obama “agreed in principle,” but said his attendance would depend on his schedule – was polite, noncommittal, and perhaps misinterpreted by Mr. Cavusoglu.
Could be. But there are fewer and fewer Americans now who doubt that Obama would join a foreign head of government for a mosque opening.
I imagine, by contrast, that there’s no one who thinks Obama would attend the opening of a new church in America.
I’m betting Obama himself doesn’t attend the mosque opening, but senior officials from his administration do.