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Turkish churches get radical makeover - by being turned in to mosques

By Catholic Online (NEWS CONSORTIUM)
December 4th, 2013
Catholic Online (www.catholic.org)

Turkey has many historical and culturally significant Christian churches. However, the dwindling Greek population in Turkey has forced the closure of many of these churches - and now the government here is considering turning these structures into mosques.

LOS ANGELES, CA (Catholic Online) - There have been discussions that the Hagia Sophia, the most famous Byzantine structure in modern Istanbul, will be turned into into a mosque.

Many fear that the nation's Christian heritage will go the way of the Byzantine Stoudios monastery. Residing in the working-class, religiously mixed neighborhood of Samatya, the structure has been sadly neglected, becoming little more than weed-grown ruins.

The Stoudios monastery was at one time a pre-eminent Christian site. The Greek community is dismayed to hear that the government plans to restore it as a mosque.

Built just a couple of centuries after the Emperor Constantine rebuilt the ancient Greek city of Byzantium as Constantinople, the Stoudios monks were known for their religious poetry and their calligraphy. The monks produced beautifully illuminated manuscripts, some of which survive today.

The monastery at one time housed the Church of St. John the Baptist. Pillages by the Crusaders, and then the Turks left the monastery in ruins. Subsequent restorations were undone by two fires and an earthquake. Both the monastery and the Hagia Sophia were turned into museums in the 20th Century.

The Cabinet revoked the monastery's status as a museum last year, clearing the way for restoring it as a mosque, which the building had served for a period of time as well.

A restoration project is due to begin next year, when it will open to the public as a mosque, according to the government.

"The place is devastated - the dome has fallen in, it will need a lot of work," Adnan Ertem, head of Turkey's General Directorate of Foundations says. He adds that the site has historical importance for Turks as a mosque. Then he noted that, "Yes, it has an importance for Christians as well."

The announcement has come as a major disappointment to some. "I'm sorry to see the monastery come to public attention for this reason, because it's a very important place, both religiously and culturally," he says. "We were waiting for so long to hear that Stoudios might be restored, and now this," Mihail Vasiliadis says. Vasiliadis manages the Greek-language paper that serves what's left of Turkey's Greek population, which he says is probably fewer than 2,000 people these days.

Vasiliadis doesn't think the government, with roots in political Islam, is intent on reviving ill will toward religious minorities, something ethnic Greeks have a long and bitter history have here.

"So many cultural artifacts have been abandoned, and when they do restore things, they ignore Byzantine culture and focus on the last 500 years, the period of Muslim control," Vasiliadis says. "The abandoned places reflect the many cultures of Anatolia, but all this government cares about is consolidating the Muslim-led nation-state."

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