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What kind of political or diplomatic gain did president Erdogan achieve from Hagia Sophia's conversion to a mosque?

Was it the demand of the majority of Turkish people living in Istanbul or Turkey? Was it the demand of AKP's supporters?

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Recep Tayyip Erdoğan is a politician known for his Islamist political leanings, in a country that with an avowedly secular government since Attaturk massively reformed Turkey from 1923-1938 creating the basis for the modern Turkish state.

Historically, Turkey's military saw itself as the guardian of Turkey's secular status, constraining religious minded political leaders. But Erdoğan, after surviving a military coup attempt in 2016 and then purging the military of forces that he suspected were disloyal to him, effectively ended this check on making Turkey less of a secular state by political means.

Hagia Sophia's conversion to a mosque advanced his Islamist political agenda, by restoring national monument to its former status as an Islamic mosque that Attaturk ended by making it into a museum. Wikipedia summarizes its historical status as follows:

  • Byzantine Christian cathedral (c. 360–1204, 1261–1453)
  • Latin Catholic cathedral (1204–1261)
  • Mosque (1453–1931; 2020–present)
  • Museum (1935–2020)

The people who voted for Erdoğan were aware of his Islamist agenda when he ran for and won office in 2014. He was not an unknown quantity before running for this office. He had been the Prime Minister of Turkey for 11 years before that, formed the Justice and Development Party that he has lead since its inception in 2001, and was the Mayor of Istanbul from 1994-1998.

While he did not specifically promise to do this at this specific location on the campaign trail when he first ran for office in 2014, he did discuss it when he ran for re-election in 2018 to a more powerful version of the Presidential office under major overhaul of the Turkish constitution approved in 2017 with his support in a response to the coup attempt.

Thus, the conversion of the Hagia Sophia was the moral equivalent of fulfilling a campaign promise that advanced the agenda that he ran for office to advance. Advancing the agenda upon which they ran for office is precisely the kind of gain that most politicians seek from participating in the political process.

Specifically, according to the same source (which is thoroughly supported by reliable third-party citations; emphasis mine):

Since 2018, Turkish president Recep Tayyip Erdoğan had spoken of reverting the status of the Hagia Sophia back to a mosque, a move seen to be very popularly accepted by the religious populace whom Erdoğan is attempting to persuade. On 31 March 2018 Erdoğan recited the first verse of the Quran in the Hagia Sophia, dedicating the prayer to the "souls of all who left us this work as inheritance, especially Istanbul's conqueror," strengthening the political movement to make the Hagia Sophia a mosque once again, which would reverse Atatürk's measure of turning the Hagia Sophia into a secular museum. In March 2019 Erdoğan said that he would change the status of Hagia Sophia from a museum to a mosque, adding that it had been a "very big mistake" to turn it into a museum. As a UNESCO World Heritage site, this change would require approval from UNESCO's World Heritage Committee. In late 2019 Erdoğan's office took over the administration and upkeep of the nearby Topkapı Palace Museum, transferring responsibility for the site from the Ministry of Culture and Tourism by presidential decree.

In 2020, Turkey's government celebrated the 567th anniversary of the Conquest of Constantinople with an Islamic prayer in Hagia Sophia. Erdoğan said during a televised broadcast "Al-Fath surah will be recited and prayers will be done at Hagia Sophia as part of conquest festival". In May, during the anniversary events, passages from the Quran were read in the Hagia Sophia. Greece condemned this action, while Turkey in response accused Greece of making “futile and ineffective statements”. In June, the head of the Turkey's Directorate of Religious Affairs (Diyanet) said that "we would be very happy to open Hagia Sophia for worship" and that if it happened "we will provide our religious services as we do in all our mosques”. On 25 June, John Haldon, president of the International Association of Byzantine Studies, wrote an open letter to Erdoğan asking that he "consider the value of keeping the Aya Sofya as a museum"

On 10 July 2020, the decision of the Council of Ministers to transform the Hagia Sophia into a museum was annulled by the Council of State, decreeing that Hagia Sophia cannot be used “for any other purpose” than being a mosque and that the Hagia Sophia was property of the Fatih Sultan Mehmet Han Foundation. The council reasoned Ottoman Sultan Mehmet II, who conquered Istanbul, deemed the property to be used by the public as a mosque without any fees and was not within the jurisdiction of the Parliament or a ministry council. Despite secular and global criticism, Erdoğan signed a decree annulling the Hagia Sophia's museum status, reverting it to a mosque. The call to prayer was broadcast from the minarets shortly after the announcement of the change and rebroadcast by major Turkish news networks. The Hagia Sophia Museum's social media channels were taken down the same day, with Erdoğan announcing at a press conference that prayers themselves would be held there from 24 July. A presidential spokesperson said it would become a working mosque, open to anyone similar to the Parisian churches Sacré-Cœur and Notre-Dame. The spokesperson also said that the change would not affect the status of the Hagia Sophia as a UNESCO World Heritage site, and that "Christian icons" within it would continue to be protected. Earlier the same day, before the final decision, the Turkish Finance and Treasury Minister Berat Albayrak and the Justice Minister Abdulhamit Gül expressed their expectations of opening the Hagia Sophia to worship for Muslims. Mustafa Şentop, Speaker of Turkey's Grand National Assembly, said "a longing in the heart of our nation has ended". A presidential spokesperson claimed that all political parties in Turkey supported Erdoğan's decision; however, the Peoples' Democratic Party had previously released a statement denouncing the decision, saying "decisions on human heritage cannot be made on the basis of political games played by the government". The mayor of Istanbul, Ekrem İmamoğlu, said that he supports the conversion "as long as it benefits Turkey", adding that he felt that Hagia Sophia has been a mosque since 1453. Ali Babacan attacked the policy of his former ally Erdoğan, saying the Hagia Sophia issue "has come to the agenda now only to cover up other problems". Orhan Pamuk, Turkish novelist and Nobel laureate, publicly denounced the move, saying "Kemal Atatürk changed... Hagia Sophia from a mosque to a museum, honouring all previous Greek Orthodox and Latin Catholic history, making it as a sign of Turkish modern secularism".

On 17 July, Erdoğan announced that the first prayers in the Hagia Sophia would be open to between 1,000 and 1,500 worshippers. He said that Turkey had sovereign power over Hagia Sophia and was thus not subject to international restrictions.

While the Hagia Sophia has now been rehallowed as a mosque, the place remains open for visitors outside of prayer times. Entrance is free of charge.

On 22 July, a turquoise-coloured carpet was laid to prepare the mosque for worshippers; Ali Erbaş, head of the Diyanet, attended its laying. The omphalion was left exposed. Due to the COVID-19 pandemic, Erbaş said Hagia Sophia would accommodate up to 1,000 worshippers at a time and asked that they bring "masks, a prayer rug, patience and understanding". The mosque opened for Friday prayers on 24 July, the 97th anniversary of the signature of the Treaty of Lausanne, which reversed many of the territorial losses Turkey incurred after World War I's Treaty of Sèvres, including ending the Allies' occupation of Constantinople, following the victory of the Republic in the Turkish War of Independence. The mosaics of the Virgin and Child in the apse were covered by white drapes. Erbaş, holding a sword, proclaimed during his sermon, "Sultan Mehmet the Conqueror dedicated this magnificent construction to believers to remain a mosque until the Day of Resurrection". Erdoğan and some government ministers attended the midday prayers as many worshippers prayed outside; at one point the security cordon was breached and dozens of people broke through police lines. Turkey invited foreign leaders and officials, including Pope Francis, for the prayers. It is the fourth Byzantine church converted from museum to a mosque during Erdoğan's rule.

It can fairly be concluded that this move was made for domestic political gain despite predictable and expected international diplomatic objections to it from some of Turkey's key allies in the West.

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