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Turkey: Conversion of 4th century Byzantine Chora Church to mosque nears completion, Erdogan government schedules opening in May

Originally built in the 4th century, Chora church was converted to a mosque in 1511 during the Ottoman empire. It was transformed into a museum in 1945, and was reconverted to a mosque in 2020 a month after similar conversion of Hagia Sophia Church

The ancient 4th century AD Byzantine Chora Church in Turkey’s Istanbul is scheduled to be converted into a mosque by May of this year by President Recep Tayyip Erdogan’s administration after which Muslims would be able to offer Namaz there. The General Directorate of Foundations declared that worship would begin in May 2024 after 4 years of restoration while dismissing the claims that the first Muslim prayer will be organised there on 23rd February.

Interestingly, the structure was first transformed into a mosque, then a museum and again now being converted into a mosque. Originally built in the 4th century, it remained a church until the 15th century but was converted into a mosque in 1511 when the Ottoman Empire took over and remained a mosque for several centuries. It was later turned into a museum in 1945 when the liberal era resumed in Turkey following World War II and existed in that form till 2019. Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan pronounced to turn the building into a functioning mosque in 2020. It has been undergoing minor repairs ever since.

Notably, the 1500-year-old historic Hagia Sophia Church was also previously transformed into a mosque by his government in 2020. It was also earlier converted to a mosque, then to a museum in 1935, and at last re-converted to a mosque in 2020. However, recently a portion of Hagia Sophia has been opened as a museum for visitors.

Just a month after Hagia Sophia was declared a mosque, the Turkish govt announced the decision to convert the Chora Church. It was one of the earliest religious structures of the Byzantine Empire and Eastern Orthodox Christianity. The Chora Church was first constructed in the early 4th century as a monastery complex outside the city walls of Constantinople, founded by Constantine the Great. The best Byzantine frescoes and mosaics adorn the walls and ceilings of the former church-turned-museum.

The church was rebuilt in the 11th century but suffered some damages in the next century. Then in the 14th century, it was rebuilt by Isaac Comnenus, and its extensive decorations with fine mosaics and frescoes were completed by 1321. The church is listed as a World Heritage Site by UNESCO.

However, when the Byzantine era ended and the Ottoman Empire took over, the church was transformed into a mosque in 1511. Due to the prohibition against iconic images in Islam, the mosaics and frescoes were covered with a layer of plaster during the Ottoman period.

The Chora Church was used as a mosque for 434 years till 1945 when it was transformed into a museum after the collapse of the Ottoman Empire. It then started to be known as the Kariye Museum, by an order from the Council of Ministers, and it opened to the public in 1958 after an extensive restoration project.

In 2005, a lawsuit was filed challenging the status of the structure as a museum. Responding to the petition, the Turkish Council of State, Turkey’s highest administrative court, ordered in 2019 that it should be reconverted to a mosque. Accordingly, the Erdogan govt passed an order in August 2020, declaring it a mosque. On Friday 30 October 2020, Muslim prayers were held at Chora Church for the first time after 72 years, but then the govt started a renovation project.

The fact that President Erdogan has always positioned himself as the global guardian of Muslims is noteworthy. His goal is to return Turkey to the times of Khilafat. The Caliphate which was viewed as the universal leader of Muslims ruled over Turkey before World War I. He desires to hold the same title for himself and has taken steps in that direction.

A major row erupted when he took a similar decision and shifted the character of the Roman-era church Hagia Sophia to that of a mosque. However, not a single voice from Turkey is protesting against these decisions. This has not been met with any opposition from any Muslim organisations or other liberal groups. As certain Maulanas have stated in the cases of Gnanavapi and Shri Krishna Janmbhoomi, Islam forbids the construction of mosques on top of other places of worship. However, their assertions have once again been rendered to be untrue.

There was a lot of outcry over the Ram Mandir which was built after winning a judicial battle in the Supreme Court of India. Concerns were raised about its construction on the site of the disputed structure even though it was unequivocally established that the place where the temple stands was originally home to an ancient temple which was destroyed to make room for the contentious Babri mosque

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OpIndia Staff
Staff reporter at OpIndia

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