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A clear pattern of intolerance

Turkey’s Erdoğan and the religious tyranny of Muslim-majority lands


Visitors admire St. Savior in Chora church in Istanbul, Turkey, on Aug. 21, 2020. Associated Press/Photo by Emrah Gurel

A clear pattern of intolerance
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Imagine a beautiful church in a small Middle Eastern town that has been populated by Christians for centuries. The people of the town cherished their church for generations. It’s where they and their families worshipped, prayed, and got baptized. Many have even happily donated to its building and subsequent renovations. Then imagine a Muslim army coming to invade the town with soldiers, horses, weapons, and chariots. After slaughtering the notables of the town, the Muslims declare it a possession for Allah and Muhammad.

This tale is not purely imaginary. It’s a rough narrative for a Byzantine church in today’s Turkey. While the most important question is what might have happened to the conquered Christians in this town, another significant inquiry relates to the fate of this beautiful church. One answer comes to us from the current Islamist Turkish government, as it is reportedly “proceeding with plans to make the Church of the Holy Savior in Istanbul a mosque.”

The beautifully designed church was built in the 12th century and is located in the historic area of northeast Istanbul, near the marvelous Adrianople Byzantine Gate. Sometime after the Muslim Ottomans invaded the land in the 1400s, they converted the church to a mosque. All of its icons and frescoes were covered by painting over them, to suit Muslim worshipers and allow them to perform their religious duties. The building then remained a mosque for four centuries, yet, after the collapse of the Ottoman Empire in the early 1900s, history lovers and archeologists sought to restore the marvelous masterworks in the building. It was later opened as a historic museum for all visitors in the 1950s.

But the current Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan is not satisfied with this current status of the building as a museum for all. He is a strong devotee of Sunni Islam. He wants to be celebrated among Muslims as a religious hero—a sort of a modern caliph who advances Islamic hegemony. After his infamous decision in 2020 to turn the stunning Hagia Sophia into a mosque, Erdoğan, in the same year, decided to turn the historic Church of the Holy Savior into a mosque. It isn’t difficult to see the intolerant pattern.

To achieve his plan, Erdoğan first annulled the ruling that designated the building as a museum, initiating the process to return it to a mosque as it was under the Ottoman Caliphate. The plan was to convert the museum to a mosque in October 2020, but the (de)formation of the inside to match Islamic patterns delayed the opening.

Now, reports from Turkey reveal that the building is ready to be opened as a mosque and can receive Muslim worshippers.

When these so-called thinkers speak about “Islam,” one often wonders if they have ever read any sacred Muslim text or whether they actually know any aspect of Muslim history.

For the opening day, Erdoğan will most likely appear in videos, entering the mosque and performing the Muslim prayer, thus declaring it for Islam, Allah, and Muhammad. Like the Ottoman invaders of Byzantine Constantinople, Erdoğan will enter as a hero for Islam. Many Muslims will view the opening of the mosque as a declaration of Islam’s superiority. For them, Erdoğan is a pious Muslim who serves Islam’s causes, as he turned what used to be a church and museum to a Muslim house of worship.

Because Turkey is now a Muslim land, the Church of the Holy Savior—with its history, heritage, and astounding marvel—may be marked for destruction.

What do Erdoğan’s actions reveal about Islam’s attitudes towards non-Muslim houses of worship, particularly churches?

Intolerance.

While Muslims are free to build mosques in many non-Muslim countries, especially in the West, Christians find huge difficulties and barriers as they live in Muslim-majority lands. Not only are churches often assaulted, but repeated patterns of erasing Christian heritage from Muslim lands are strikingly clear.

What does this reveal about the meaning of religious freedom in Islam? Christians are often in catastrophic conditions whenever and wherever they reside in Muslim-majority countries.

Yet many Western politicians and liberal thinkers keep telling the world that Islam is all about mutual respect and religious freedom. They insist that Islam—wait for it—is like any other religion: It’s what you make of it. When these so-called thinkers speak about “Islam,” one often wonders if they have ever read any sacred Muslim text or whether they actually know any aspect of Muslim history. These people—knowingly or unknowingly—are naïve propagandists for Islam. And they are wrong.

Don’t believe them when they attempt to teach you about the Islam they don’t know. Don’t listen to them when they talk about Islam’s commitment to religious tolerance and freedom for all. Don’t shy away from showing the glaring example of the Muslim leader Erdoğan. Religious liberty in Islam is not for all—it is only for Muslims to do what they please and is clearly bound only by what elevates Islam and its hegemony.


A.S. Ibrahim

A.S. Ibrahim, born and raised in Egypt, holds two PhDs with an emphasis on Islam and its history. He is a professor of Islamic studies and director of the Jenkins Center for the Christian Understanding of Islam at The Southern Baptist Theological Seminary. He has taught at several schools in the United States and the Middle East, and authored A Concise Guide to the Life of Muhammad (Baker Academic, 2022), Conversion to Islam (Oxford University Press, 2021), Basics of Arabic (Zondervan 2021), A Concise Guide to the Quran (Baker Academic, 2020), and The Stated Motivations for the Early Islamic Expansion (Peter Lang, 2018), among others.


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