Aya Sophia rising on Syrian soil – Erdogan will not succeed in destroying Christian heritage

“If you plant one seed, you will generate more seeds in the future. This is a message to the terrorists that we will stay on this land” ~ Nabel Alabdalla, commander of the Al Sqeilbiyyeh National Defence Forces. 5th September 2020.

Nabel Alabdalla, commander of Al Sqeilbiyyeh National Defence Forces. Photo: Vanessa Beeley

On the 5th September 2020 a historic event took place in Al Sqeilbiyyeh, northern Hama. Commander of the Al Sqeilbiyyeh volunteer National Defence Forces, Nabel Alabdalla, presided over a ceremony to lay the foundation stone of a smaller replica of the ancient symbol of religious diversity – the Aya Sophia temple in Istanbul.

Image of Aya Sophia displayed during the ceremony on 5th September 2020. Photo: Vanessa Beeley

Formerly a museum celebrating regional religious co-existence and secular cultures, it has recently been converted into a mosque by Turkish president, Recip Erdogan. Erdogan in his eagerness to return to the pre- Sevres Treaty (1923) borders and to reinstate the Ottoman Empire, is uprooting Christian identity in Turkey.

One of the NDF soldiers standing in front of the image of Aya Sophia on the morning of the ceremony. Photo: Vanessa Beeley

In addition to Aya Sophia, Erdogan has reconverted the historic Chora church, one of the most famous Istanbul Byzantine buildings, into a Mosque, one month after Aya Sophia opened for Friday prayer.

Previously, the St. Georgios Greek Orthodox Church, which was restored and transformed into a cultural centre by the Nilüfer Municipality in Bursa, was taken from the municipality and transferred to an Islamic Foundation. The historical building, which was neglected for 7 years, was destroyed recently.

“..known as the “Hagia Sophia of Bursa” since it was used both as a church and a mosque in the past, to future generations, organized various cultural events in the historical building. “ ~ Paul Antonopoulos

Nabel Alabdalla checking last minute preparations for the ceremony. Photo: Vanessa Beeley

Alabdalla reacted the minute that Erdogan declared his intent to convert Aya Sophia in July 2020. Alabdalla undertook to finance the initiative himself while making a statement that explained his vision. Excerpts below:

“Hagia Sophia was originally built as a church and was not a temple for any other religion prior to that. It was a symbol of Christianity for thousands of years before the Ottoman occupied it by force and because he is a barbarian extremist, he converted it to a mosque – the opposite to what Al-Farouk (Omar bin Al-Khattab) did in Jerusalem.”

Our Russian friends heard about this initiative from the media, so they mentioned the project to the Duma and this is evidence of their opposition to Erdogan’s actions. However, the church will be built only with hands from Sqeilbiyyeh and with Syrian stone, on my land and I will finance the project personally – just as our ancestors preserved our heritage and our land, so we shall do the same.

On the 5th September, the day that Deir Ezzor was liberated from a three year ISIS occupation in 2017, the foundation stone of the new Aya Sophia was laid in an olive-tree lined field in Al Sqeilbiyyeh. This Syrian Christian town was besieged for seven years by the Erdogan-controlled and midwived terrorist groups in northern Hama and Idlib, part of the US Coalition proxy forces that have invaded Syria since 2011.

The Aya Sophia foundation stone.

Liberation of the areas to the north of Sqeilbiyyeh finally came in 2019 but for the National Defence Forces, the war is not over. They are still often sent on missions to de-mine areas previously occupied by ISIS or other terrorist groups including Al Qaeda. In a recent operation, one of the volunteer soldiers was killed and two others grievously injured when their vehicle hit a mine buried in the sand where they were working.

Sqeilbiyyeh female defenders – mothers, wives, sisters and relatives of martyrs have taken up arms and trained with Russian forces to defend their city. Photo: Vanessa Beeley

The event was attended by an impressive number of Syrian and Russian dignitaries. General Ramadan Ramadan of the Ninth Division of the Syrian Arab Army and the Commander in Chief at the Russian base of Hmemim, General Alexander Chaiko was also in attendance and participated in the laying of the foundation stone. The Archbishop of Hama, Nikolai Baalbek and a number of other Orthodox Christian representatives gave their seal of approval.

General Chaiko (left). Photo: Vanessa Beeley

The presence of General Chaiko sends a very clear message to Erdogan – that Russia does not accept the eradication of Orthodox Christian presence in the region and it stands by the efforts of all those defending secular co-existence in Syria.

Simon Alwakil (left), General Ramadan Ramadan, Nabel Alabdalla. Photo: Vanessa Beeley

The day before the event, Erdogan was particularly bellicose. He announced that “Turkish conquest is not occupation or looting – It is spreading the justice of Allah, if anybody wants to stand against us and pay the price, let them come”. The social media chatter from his client terrorists in Idlib echoed his belligerence and displeasure that Alabdalla was defying the neo-Ottoman diktats. Apologies for the Memri/Israeli clip but here is the speech with subtitles:

Alabdalla’s challenge to Erdogan certainly did not go unnoticed. Alabdalla has been a steadfast military opponent of Turkey and the US Alliance since the war against Syria began ten years ago. Not only has Alabdalla defended his own city against the threat of massacre by the sectarian hordes, he has also fought in many of the most arduous campaigns across Syria and he is considered a legend by his soldiers, many of whom have fought by his side in all the campaigns.

Alabdalla with his men in Al Sqeilbiyyeh on the morning of the ceremony. Photo: Vanessa Beeley

What is clear is that Erdogan will not have an easy path towards his new Ottoman empire, he has many detractors and perhaps the most dangerous now is potentially Russia on whose goodwill Turkey relies to negotiate their way out of the various military quagmires in which Erdogan has immersed the Turkish military. Russia will rarely directly address Erdogan’s rogue policies but they will make their position clear in other more subtle ways. Chaiko’s involvement in the ceremony and the planning leading up to it is a slap in the face for the would-be-Emperor and he knows it.

Alabdalla with General Chaiko.

Nabel Alabdalla had the courage of his convictions. He had his detractors who believed the project was foolish but he has proven them wrong. The core belief that Alabdalla has upheld is that Christianity is an integral part of the middle eastern cultural tapestry and that a secular Syria must be defended at all costs.

Alabdalla giving interviews on the day. Photo: Vanessa Beeley

Alabdalla stressed that the new Aya Sophia will be a place of pilgrimage for the families of martyrs, not only Syrian martyrs but Russian and all other allies. All faiths will be welcome to honour those who have sacrificed their lives to protect Syria from hostile and predatory rogue states whose intent is to tear the country apart into sectarian statelets and to reduce the country as a whole to a Libya-style failed state.

The Aya Sophia ceremony. Photo: Vanessa Beeley

The Aya Sophia church in Al Sqeilbiyyeh will be a simple affair but one full of heart and integrity. Perhaps this is the strongest message that Erdogan should pay attention to – his fanatical sectarianism has no place in a world that is just and fair.

“We hold the candles of peace in one hand with our other hand on the barrel of a gun” Nabel Alabdalla told me when I first met him two years ago after the terrorist groups had targeted his town with eight prohibited cluster bomb rockets.

The candles of peace were lit on the morning of the 5th of September 2020 and they will keep burning through this historic Aya Sophia initiative despite the criminal intent of world leaders who have no interest in furthering unity and peace, only war, poverty, misery and suffering for the Syrian people.

Nabel Alabdalla. Photo: Vanessa Beeley


2 thoughts on “Aya Sophia rising on Syrian soil – Erdogan will not succeed in destroying Christian heritage

  1. Out of the whole essay, this is the key statement: ” The core belief that Alabdalla has upheld is that Christianity is an integral part of the middle eastern cultural tapestry and that a secular Syria must be defended at all costs.” The maintenance of a secular society, respecting all beliefs & non-belief, is the only secure foundation for a multi-ethnic population. The Syrian people have proven their commitment to that ethic beyond doubt.

    Liked by 1 person

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