Syria: the ‘resurrection’ of Hagia Sophia in Al Sqeilbiyyeh, northern Hama

Hagia Sofia

Controversy still rages over Turkish president, Recip Tayyip Erdogan’s inflammatory decision to re-convert the historical and symbolic Hagia Sofia into a mosque. Christian artefacts and icons will be covered and Christian visitors to the former museum will have to follow Islamic rules when entering the building that houses so much of their heritage.

“In 1934, under the rule of the founder of modern Turkey, Kemal Ataturk, Hagia Sophia became a museum. Since Ataturk’s conversion of the building it has been a symbol of secular Turkey and religious coexistence.” RFERL

Video showing Hagia Sophia:

In 1934, under the rule of the founder of modern Turkey, Kemal Ataturk, Hagia Sophia became a museum. Since Ataturk’s conversion of the building it has been a symbol of secular Turkey and religious coexistence.” Erdogan’s motives behind this move cannot be considered without rancour towards the Christian communities in the Middle East.

Erdogan is occupying much of the northern Syrian territory with an assortment of armed gangs. Many consist of the remnants of the terrorist organisations, dominated by Al Qaeda, financed and armed by the US Coalition in their ten year attempt to topple the Syrian government and to balkanise Syria in accordance with their imperialist blueprint already rolled out in former Yugoslavia, Iraq, Libya – failed in Yemen and Syria.

A detail of a mosaic of Jesus that reportedly dates to 1261.

Erdogan’s decision to reconvert this monument to secularism and co-existence in the region is horrifying to the Orthodox Christian communities inside Syria. It is very hard to address this subject without touching upon the diverse mosaic of faith and religion that coexist in Syria because it is this tapestry that all Syrians have defended for ten long and punishing years. This article is not going to further the divisions that Erdogan is trying to create. Rather it will demonstrate that Syrian Christians of all denominations and their fellow patriots of multiple faiths will defend their diversity and their pluralism with every fibre of their being.

A mosaic made in the 9th or 10th century featuring a seated Jesus holding a book with the words “Peace be with you. I am the light of the world.”

On July 10th 2020, a Turkish court cleared the way for the Hagia Sophia to be converted from a museum back into a mosque. On the same day, Erdogan gave a speech to celebrate the “resurrection” of Hagia Sophia into a mosque.

Erdogan informed his audience that the “mosque” would remain open to all, Muslims and non-Muslims. He announced that the first Friday prayers would be held on the 24th July 2020. Erdogan laid claim to Hagia Sophia as an integral part of the Turkish heritage and reopening as a Mosque was “merely an exercising of the country’s sovereign rights”. Any discussion of the origin and perceived desecration of the purpose of Hagia Sophia would be met with accusations of “Islamaphobia” and even “xenophobia”.

Ironically, Erdogan said that he expected the world to respect the decision regarding this place of worship just as he respects the decisions of other nations. The irony lies in Erdogan’s sponsorship of the extremist gangs that roam the Syrian Christian towns and villages in Idlib, destroying and looting churches and uprooting entire communities in their campaign to erase Christianity from their caliphatist vision for Syria and the region.

The irony lies in Erdogan’s support for the same sectarian, armed militias, dominated by Al Qaeda who besieged and targeted the Syrian Christian communities of Al Sqeilbiyyeh and Mhardeh in northern Hama. These towns were liberated last year by the National Defence Forces and the Syrian Arab Army but not before the children and civilians of these towns had suffered from almost daily mortar attacks and the ever-present threat of invasion and inevitable massacre of the townspeople. I have recorded many of these attacks – here, here, here. So, Erdogan’s rhetoric bears no relation to the butchering of Christian heritage and eradication of their existence in the areas of Syria Erdogan controls via his proxy forces.

Erdogan informs the world that the re-conversion of Hagia Sophia “.. is the strongest answer ever given to the brutal attacks against our symbols and values across the Islamic world.” Meanwhile Erdogan and the international community is virtually silent over the brutal attacks against the symbols, values, heritage and human lives that are being devastated by sectarian violence and brutality inside Syria. The hypocrisy is breathtaking. Erdogan goes on to say:

With its historic struggle, our nation builds a bridge between the past and the future, embracing all of humanity for the sake of the bright future of the civilization that we represent.

Erdogan burns bridges in Syria. Erdogan deprives Syrians of water by closing off the Euphrates supply at source inside Turkey – the river feeds Syria and Iraq with water. Erdogan’s proxies burn thousands of hectares of wheat and barley crops. Erdogan does not represent a “bright future” for anyone who challenges his neo-ottoman ambitions. Erdogan represents the destruction of history, the tearing apart of heritage and the decimation of cultures that do not comply with extremist, sectarian savagery. As author, George Orwell, said:

The most effective way to destroy people is to deny and obliterate their own understanding of their history. Perhaps one did not want to be loved so much as to be understood. Who controls the past controls the future.”

Erdogan’s neo-Ottoman pretensions are palpable in his speech.

My dear nation, the conquest of Istanbul and the conversion of the Hagia Sophia into a Mosque are among the most glorious chapters in Turkish history.

The Treaty of Lausanne

The first prayers in the reconverted Hagia Sophia were held on the 24th July 2020. The Treaty of Lausanne was signed on this day in 1923. This treaty defined the borders of the modern Turkish Republic – borders that Erdogan would now see expand to include former Ottoman territories. The message that Erdogan is sending is clear – Turkey will no longer be confined terms of the Treaty of Lausanne. Under Erdogan’s stewardship, Turkey’s expansionism is assured – at the expense of the established cultural diversity that exists in the territory in his crosshairs. Erdogan is taking revenge on “the memory of Mustafa Kemal aka Ataturk”.

Erdogan is threatening secularism and peaceful co-existence with extinction.

The 24th July prayers were a collection of who’s who among the powerful elite in Turkey – a demonstration of unity behind the neo-Ottoman militarism in the region?

The reaction from one Syrian Christian town in northern Hama – the resurrection of Hagia Sophia on Syrian soil.

Nabel Alabdalla, commander of the Al Sqeilbiyyeh National Defence Forces (left) with Orthodox Patriarch of Antioch, John Yazizi (right) and Gtas Awad of the Mhardeh National Defence Forces (center)

Al Sqeilbiyyeh and Mhardeh endured eight years of siege and the weekly, random martyrdom of civilians, children and young men who joined the volunteer National Defence Forces to protect their cities from invasion by Erdogan’s proxy caliphatist forces (also backed by the other members of the US Coalition).

Nabel Alabdalla. Commander of the Al Sqeilbiyyeh National Defence Forces. Photo: Vanessa Beeley

Nabel Alabdalla, commander of the National Defence Forces in Al Sqeilbiyyeh, took the decision to build a symbolic (downsized) replica of Hagia Sophia in Sqeilbiyyeh in defiance of Erdogan’s seizure of the authentic temple.

Nabel Alabdalla, his family, Simon Alwakil (commander of Mhardeh National Defence Forces), Father Demetrius Hadad, the Archbishop of Hama, Nikolai Baalbaki and Patriarch John Yazizi

Nabel has gone to great lengths to explain that his decision is not in the interests of furthering any sectarian divides. Rather he is defending everything that he and his soldiers, the Syrian Arab Army and the Syrian state have represented for decades – the secular intermingling of faiths into one cohesive force for peace and progressive development. This entire way of life and vision was shattered by the likes of Erdogan’s Ottoman pretensions and the US Coalition’s road map for Syria that would see this cohesion fractured and partitioned into sectarian statelets destined to be at war for decades to come.

The beautiful city of Al Sqeilibiyyeh.

The building of a representation of Hagia Sophia on Syrian Christian territory is a reclaiming of history, the righting of a wrong. It is a message sent to Erdogan that he will never succeed, that his militarism and brinkmanship are the hallmarks of desperation and a fatal overreach that will royally backfire. The occupation of Hagia Sophia is an insult also to the Russian Christian Orthodoxy and it remains to be seen how Russia will respond long-term but Russia’s President Putin has already sent clear messages to Erdogan that his Emperor-complex is not to be entertained by the developing global power in the region. Remember when Putin humiliated Erdogan by keeping him waiting prior to the March 2020 meeting to discuss agreement in Idlib, north-west Syria:

Russia commends the Hagia Sophia project in Al Sqeilbiyyeh

Hagia Sophia at night.

Nabel’s project has the support of many inside Syria and Russia. Vitaly Milonov, a member of the State Duma Committee on the Development of Civil Society, Public and Religious Associations, has expressed admiration for the intitiative.

This is a good step, because Syria, unlike Turkey, is a country that clearly demonstrates the possibility and positive effect of a peaceful dialogue, peaceful neighborhood of Christians and Muslims. And I am sure that in Syria, a repetition of the fate of the Turkish Hagia Sophia is impossible, because there the ancient Christian churches stand untouched. Yes, and President Bashar al-Assad would never in his life transfer a church from one denomination to another. This is some kind of madness, ”said the Russian parliamentarian.

According to Milonov, Erdogan’s decision has set a very dangerous precedent and will create inestimable tensions in the region that will be difficult to resolve. The danger is that other countries may now follow Erdogan’s example which could ignite a new and perhaps more explosive sectarian conflict further afield.

“As an Orthodox Christian, I am categorically opposed to turning mosques into Orthodox churches even in places of overwhelming Orthodox residence. I would never have done this, but then why does Erdogan (Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan . – FAN note) allow himself this? This shows that he does not honor either the traditions of Islam or the traditions of Christianity, the transfer of the cathedral for him is merely political manipulation. He should be ashamed of his act, ”

Milonov stated his support for Nabel’s project and said that if approval is given for the building of the downsized, symbolic replica of Hagia Sofia, Russian faith leaders and communities would contribute willingly towards its completion.

“I think that all of Russia will want to help. This will truly be a landmark event for all Orthodox people, I am sure that every Orthodox Christian wants his name to be inscribed at least in a stone, at least in a brick of the new Hagia Sophia, ”concluded Vitaly Milonov.

Nabel Alabdalla and Simon Alwakil

For Nabel and Simon, this is about ensuring that the sacrifices of their soldiers and the blood shed by the Syrian Arab Army and allies is not in vain. It is to make sure that everything they defend is sustained for their families, for their country and for the stability of the region. It is to provide a future for their children that is brimming with diversity, tolerance, compassion and secularism – where all faiths coexist without war or externally orchestrated division.

Nabel’s children. Qamar and Rafiq

Update from Syrian historian and journalist, Ahmad Mahmoud Al-Mutawakel:

“You do know that the Ottoman Sultanate was not an Islamic one and they just used the Islamic cover to go for their expansionist wars? Not a single teaching of Islam was followed, and the main argument that blows away their cover is their abandoning of the Arabic language, the language of the Holy Quran, Islam, what the prophet spoke and replaced it with a language barely used that time in comparison until they conquered large swaths of lands and forced people to use their language, also pretending to be serving Islam. Stealing other people’s worship places is also very much against the core Islamic teaching.

My challenge to Erdogan if he’s a real Muslim to return to using Arabic as the state’s official language, then there’s a set of other steps to take by him.”

***

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