Muslims have recently become increasingly aggressive about demanding that holy places originally created by other faiths be reserved exclusively for Muslim use.
Although attention in recent days has focused on demands to permit Jewish prayers on the Temple Mount in Jerusalem, the demand that places sanctified by another faith now be turned into mosques is strongest in Turkey.
Mustafa Kemal, Ataturk, came to power in 1923 as a successful general who had not only driven the Greek army from Anatolia, but completed the ethnic cleansing of the last significant Christian populations of Asia Minor, driving into the sea the a population that had been Greek-speaking since the dawn of history. Islam finished conquering Anatolia in the 1400s, turning cathedrals into mosques and gradually converting the population.
Ataturk was a dedicated secularist who turned some of the old Byzantine churches from use as mosques into museums. Decades of renovation restored the Byzantine mosaics and frescoes and hordes of tourists arrived, mostly to visit Hagia Sophia in Istanbul, but the cognoscenti visit smaller buildings with older paintings, like the 13th century cathedral of Trabzon. The EU paid for a major restoration at Trabzon, carefully removing the Muslim-era paint that had covered (and damaged) magnificent Byzantine-era frescoes. From a Muslim perspective, the icons were graven images.
Now, Recep Tayyip Erdogan’s Islamist Justice and Development (AK) has turned the Trabzon’s old Byzantine cathedral back into a mosque. The international art community is concerned about the future of Christian frescoes in the Trabzon cathedral, and in a series of ancient churches long preserved as museums and now reclaimed by the Erdogan’s AK Party for use as mosques.
But it is Hagia Sophia that draws the greatest attention. For centuries it was the greatest church in Christendom and the largest domed building in the world. It became the model for domed mosques across the Ottoman Empire and the world. But the AK is pushing to have it turned into a mosque. No sizable Christian community survives in Turkey, but (except at times of civil unrest) Christians and art enthusiasts from around the world visit Hagia Sophia in enormous numbers. The world’s tourists and art lovers feel that they have a right to visit the greatest of the Roman Byzantine churches, to see the images – whether as icons, as art, or as historic artifacts – and even to pray in this ancient church.
Tourists and pilgrims visiting Jerusalem have similar feelings. Christian and Jewish groups feel that they have as much right as Muslims to pray on the spot where Jesus prayed and where the Temple was the focus of ancient Jewish religious life. But non-Muslim prayer is not allowed, not even the silent prayer of individuals (guards watch for silently moving lips and prayer books).
Tourists of all nations and faiths naturally wish to visit the Dome of the Rock, but restrictions enacted in the 1990’s restrict the building to non-Muslims. Before that moment, tourists of all faiths were permitted entry. To be clear, the Dome of the Rock was built as a political statement and although it has spent long centuries as a little-visited, ill-maintained, third-tier shrine in a backward corner of the Muslim world, whenever it is politically useful, the Dome reascends to prominence and even has its dome re-gilded. Non-Muslims were permitted ot visit until Palestinian politics made it seem useful to deny non-Muslims that right.
The “Rock” in Dome of the Rock is the Foundation Stone that lay at the heart of the Jewish Temple. Islam claimed this Stone for a Muslim shrine. According to tradition recorded in the Quran, the prophet Muhammad flew on horseback from Mecca to “the furthest mosque,” visited heaven, and returned to earth in a single “night journey”. Later traditions identified the “furthest mosque” of the text as Jerusalem, and claimed that the footprint of Muhammad’s horse can be seen on the Foundation Stone. Muslims probably borrowed the idea of a holy footprint from the 4th century Church of the Ascension on the Mount of Olives, built by the Empress Helena to enshrine a footprint said to have been impressed in stone by Jesus when he ascended to heaven. Christians had probably borrowed the idea of a holy footprint impressed in stone may from Buddhism, which preserves even older footprints in stone said to have been left by the Buddah.
All religions take from older faiths: ideas, rituals and buildings are copied, modified and made new. The Cave of the Patriarchs in Hebron was already an extremely ancient Jewish Holy Place when King Herod built the walls we see today. It was turned into a church, and then a mosque. This past weekend, a rare period wen Jews are permitted to visit rooms usually open exclusively to Muslims, an Israeli soldier guarding the area was murdered by a Muslim sniper.
Islamist activists and governments are staking exclusivist claims to The Cave of the Patriarchs, the Temple Mount, Hagia Sophia, and a series of other ancient churches in Turkey. These are political claims, but it well to remember that politically contested spaces can be shared not only between tourists and worshipers, but between believers in rival faiths.
St. Martin’s Church in Biberach, Germany has been shared by Lutherans and Catholics since 1548. Each group is entitled to use specific parts of the church during stipulated hours and days. Anyone who thinks that this is a poor precedent for a region as fraught as the Middle East should consider that the sharing arrangement held up during the Thirty Years War.
At Hagia Sophia in Istanbul, the Byzantine Cathedral in Trabzon, the Temple Mount and the Cave of the Patriarchs, Muslim authorities need to respect the rights of others to visit places that are the heritage of many groups, and to worship there.