Turks call for Muslim prayers at Hagia Sophia in wake of New Zealand mosque massacres

Turks call for Muslim prayers at Hagia Sophia in wake of New Zealand mosque massacres
Turks have called for the Hagia Sophia to be re-converted into a mosque after it was revealed that the New Zealand mosque attacker wanted it to be a church.
3 min read
17 March, 2019
The idea of turning the Hagia Sophia into a mosque is highly controversial [AFP]

Hundreds of Turks are calling for the Hagia Sophia, one of the country's most popular tourist attractions, to once again become a mosque in the wake of Friday's New Zealand massacre of Muslim worshippers.

Main suspect in the attacks, Australian extremist Brenton Tarrant, is accused of livestreaming the massacre in two Christchurch mosques during Friday prayers, which left 50 people dead.

Tarrant appeared in court Saturday and was charged with murder.

Hagia Sophia was a Byzantine church in Istanbul which was converted into a mosque during the Ottoman Empire, but later became a museum after the founding of the Turkish Republic. 

Calls to convert it back into a mosque were renewed in Turkey on Friday, after media latched onto statements made by the far right-wing suspect in a white supremacist manifesto published online, which stated he wanted it to become a church again.

One of Tarrant's guns was also covered with references to events such as the 1683 Battle of Vienna and other historic European victories over Ottoman and Muslim forces, as well as white supremacist and Nazi symbols and slogans and references to previous anti-immigrant and anti-Muslim attackers.

Hundreds of Turks took to social media to express outrage over the extremist manifesto and call for the Hagia Sophia to be re-opened as a mosque under the hashtag #OpenHagiaSophiaForWorship.

Calling the attack an act of "Christian terror", Twitter users cried "This is Istanbul, not Constantinople!".

Read more: New Zealand mosque attacks: who were the victims?

While Muslims have sporadically been allowed to perform prayers at the UNESCO heritage site in recent years, the issue of re-converting the Hagia Sophia into a mosque is highly controversial in Turkey and acts of a symbol of the sharp divide between conservative Muslims and secularists in the country.

Previous attempts to hold prayers in the museum have also elicited upset from Greece.

"My brothers, he called Istanbul 'Constantinople!' He threatened to turn Hagia Sophia into a church," said Erdogan, whose "ethnic soldiers" Tarrant claimed were "currently occupying Europe", on Friday.

"As long as this people exists, as long as this soul exists, we will not allow this to happen."

Around 500 protesters gathered outside the Hagia Sophia on Saturday.

The crowds unfurled banners that read "Muslims, stand tall!" and "Muslims, unite!" before holding a funeral prayer for the victims of the attack.

Protesters were angered by the attacker's claims that the Hagia Sophia would be rid of its minarets [AFP]

"Everyone is aware of the rising Islamophobia all over the world; assailants find the courage to launch such attacks because of Muslims' timidity," Faruk Hanedar, one of the demonstrators, told AFP.

"We are here to show Muslims are able to respond to them with a smart attitude."

The president later gave an ambiguous rejection of calls to open the Hagia Sophia for prayer.

"These are tricks. First you should fill the Blue Mosque next door, then we will look at the Hagia Sophia", Erdogan said at a local election rally on Saturday.

"We made the Camlica Mosque [Turkey’s largest], 4-5 Hagia Sophias."

Critics of the controversial president claimed that both Erdogan and the Turkish media, the majority of which is dominated by pro-government sources, were using the tragic attack as a populist ploy to gain votes in the 31 March elections.

Those claims were intensified after Erdogan showed a video of the shootings, live streamed by the attacker, at an election rally in Tekirdag on Saturday.

Turkey on Friday began officially investigating the attacker's links to the country after it was revealed he had traveled to Istanbul twice in 2016.

The president on Friday condemned the massacres, saying that hostility towards Islam was spreading in Western countries "like a cancer".

"With this attack, hostility towards Islam, that the world has been idly watching and even encouraging for some time, has gone beyond individual harassment to reach the level of mass killing," he said.