Greece: Turkish Church Conversion an Act of ‘Symbolic Violence’

ISTANBUL, TURKEY - AUGUST 21: Tourists visit the Chora (Kariye) Church Museum, the 11th century church of St. Savior on August 21, 2020 in Istanbul, Turkey. Istanbul's famous Chora Church Museum will be reconverted to a mosque and open to muslim worship as ordered by a Presidential decree. The decision …
Burak Kara/Getty Images

Greek President Katerina Sakellaropoulou denounced Turkey’s conversion of the historic Church of Chora into a mosque as an act of “symbolic violence” this weekend.

In a social media post on Friday, Sakellaropoulou described the church conversion as “an act dictated by political arrogance, cultural insecurity, religious intolerance that condemns a treasure of Christian art and cultural nobility to obscurity.”

Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan ordered Istanbul’s ancient Church of the Holy Savior in Chora converted into a mosque August 21, a month after he sparked concern from the United Nations and outrage from Orthodox Christians by converting the Hagia Sophia from a museum into a mosque.

The church, commonly known by the Latin name Chora (meaning “outside the walls,” or “in the country,” a fair description of its location relative to the city walls at the time of its construction) dates back to the 4th Century. 

It retained its name after the walls of Constantinople, as the city was then named, were expanded outward. The fabulous mosaics painted inside the church build on its name as a metaphor for being built in the country of Jesus, the “Land of the Living.”

The Chora Church was extensively renovated in the late 11th century, and its famed mosaics and murals were largely painted in the early 14th. A fine description of those paintings can be found at the Turkey Travel Planner website:

The mosaics are breathtaking. The first ones are those of the dedication, to Jesus and Mary. Then come the offertory ones: Theodore Metochites, builder of the church, offering it to Jesus.

The two small domes of the inner narthex have portraits of all Jesus’s ancestors back to Adam. A series outlines Mary’s life, and another, Jesus’s early years. Yet another series concentrates on Jesus’s ministry.

In the nave are three mosaics: of Jesus, of Mary as Teacher, and of the Dormition of Mary (turn around to see this one-it’s over the main door you just entered).

South of the nave is the Parecclesion, a side chapel built to hold the tombs of the church’s founder and relatives. The frescos, appropriately, deal with the theme of death and resurrection.

In 1511, after Muslims conquered Constantinople and renamed it Istanbul, the church was converted into a mosque and renamed Kariye. The structure was modified to include Islamic religious features, including a minaret, and the great mosaics and portraits were painted over. The coverings were refreshed several times during the four hundred years the structure was used as a mosque.

This condition persisted until the 1950s when a secularized Turkey allowed American historians to conduct an extensive restoration program for the paintings. The church was reopened as the Kariye Muzesi museum in 1958, becoming a top tourist attraction for Istanbul. Its collection is widely regarded as one of the greatest remaining examples of Byzantine artwork.

The great Hagia Sophia cathedral followed a similar trajectory, and now the Church of Chora faces the same fate under the Islamist Erdogan. 

A Turkish court last year nullified the 1945 government directive that established the Kariye Muzesi museum, and on Friday, Erdogan issued an edict that transferred control of the structure from the Education Ministry to the Religious Affairs Directorate, ordering Chora “opened to worship” as a mosque. As with the Hagia Sophia, Erdogan ignored Chora’s designation as a World Heritage Site by the United Nations.

Many observers believe Erdogan’s “Islamist revival” is a cynical ploy to shore up political support in Istanbul, where the ruling AKP party fared poorly against the secularist Republican People’s Party (CHP) in elections last year.

The Greek Foreign Ministry went much further, issuing a livid statement that accused Erdogan of insulting Christianity, archaeology, and the entire world community by turning Chora into a mosque:

Following the Hagia Sophia and despite the international reactions it provoked, the character of another UNESCO World Heritage Site in Turkey is brutally insulted. Despite occasional declarations of respect for the rights of minorities and the multi-religious character of its society, Turkey is violating its international obligations to the World Heritage Sites located in its territory.

Today’s decision by the Turkish authorities once again exposes Turkey to the international community. It is absolutely reprehensible. We call on this country to keep pace with international developments in the field of protection of world cultural heritage. We call on her to return to the 21st century, of mutual respect, dialogue and understanding between cultures.

The Greek Synod issued a statement of protest after a meeting in Athens on August 27:

On the occasion of the conversion of the present museum status of the catholikon of the Monastery of Chora into a mosque and a place of prayer of the Islamic religion, the Holy Synod expresses its disappointment and strong protest against the decision of the of the neighboring country Turkey, which also turned this monument from a place of culture into a point of division and disintegration.

As it did in the similar case of Hagia Sophia, the Church of Greece immediately makes international appeals and actions, requesting the return of the Monastery of Chora to its pre-existing use.

Patriarch Bartholomew of Constantinople said in his homily last Sunday that converting the Hagia Sophia and Church of Chora into mosques “caused great pain in the hearts of all Christians.”

Reuters noted that Erdogan’s edict did not specify when the first Islamic services would be held at Chora, or what would happen to the priceless Christian artworks inside. His solution for the Hagia Sophia involved hanging curtains over the Christian paintings when Muslim services are held. This would be more difficult to do with Chora since its walls are positively brimming with Christian religious art.

“Its beautiful mosaics and frescoes cover almost all the church’s walls and domes. It would be hard to imagine it being returned into a mosque without totally covering them over,” observed French historian Fabrice Monnier.

Observers expressed Concerns for the Church of Chora as soon as Erdogan moved against the Hagia Sophia, as many observers correctly deduced Chora would be the next target for Erdogan’s “Islamic revival.”

“It is quite probable that the monument will be switched from the archaeological service to the general directorate of religious establishments,” Giannis Theocharis of the Greek Archeologists’ Association predicted two weeks before Erdogan did exactly that.

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