Christians in Turkey have – throughout the centuries — been turned into a tiny, dwindling minority. The remaining few Christian churches in Anatolia are also on the path to total annihilation.
Hagia Sophia in Trabzon: Church-mosque-museum and now mosque again
The Hagia Sophia, Greek for “Holy Wisdom,” was one of the many historic Orthodox churches located in the city of Trabzon. Watch this short video by the marine archaeologist Susan Langley to see the unique etchings on the walls of the former church:
The third and youngest of the Hagia Sophia’s in Turkey, the church was first converted to a mosque during the Ottoman rule. In 1964, it was turned into a museum. Since 2013, however, it was converted into a mosque.
Christian symbols in the church have been damaged or destroyed. Nails have been pounded into the walls in order to hang curtains inside the new “mosque” to create a separate section for women. The frescos on the ceiling have been veiled with wooden curtains and the mosaics on the floors have been covered with a carpet.
Some walls have been painted green. A toilet and ferroconcrete structures have been built around the former church.
You can see photos of the new Haghia Sophia “mosque” by clicking here.
Watch this video to see the transformation of the church-museum into a mosque:
The city of Trabzon (or “Trapezus” in Greek), is located in the ancient land of Pontos, in the north-eastern Black Sea region of Turkey. The first Greek settlements appeared in the region as early as 800 BC. Many renowned Greek philosophers, such as Diogenes and Strabo, were born and raised in Pontos, which means “sea” in Greek.
The region is also central to the Christian faith. Pontos and its inhabitants are mentioned thrice in the New Testament. The Pontic (Pontian) people were some of the very first converts to Christianity. Trabzon had its own bishop as early as the First Council of Nicaea in AD 325.
“Trabzon,” wrote the historian Sam Topalidis, “was the ancient capital of the Greek-speaking Komnenos Byzantine Kingdom (1204–1461) within the Pontos—the northeast portion of Anatolia adjacent the Black Sea. It survived until 1461, eight years after the fall of Byzantine Constantinople when both localities fell to the Ottoman Turks.”
The Ottoman Sultan Mehmed II invaded and captured the city after a month-long siege and took its ruler and his family into captivity.[i]
A forgotten genocide: Pontic Greek genocide
Pontos was first invaded by Seljuk Turks in the 1070s and 1080s, and then by the Ottoman imperial army. The demographics as well as the culture of the region have ever since been totally changed.
“During the following two centuries of Ottoman rule, the 16th and 17th centuries, Greek communities in Asia Minor resisted constant pressures to convert to Islam,” reported the Pontian Greek Society of Chicago.
“Most managed to preserve their religion, ethnic traditions, and culture. During the 17th and 18th centuries, however, thousands of Greeks were forced to convert to Islam, among them 250,000 Pontian Greeks. Thousands of Greeks fled to Christian Russia to escape Turkish persecution, particularly following the numerous Russian-Turkish wars in the 19th century.”
The gravest mass murders of Christians took place during the latest stage of the Ottoman Empire as well as the founding phase of the Republic of Turkey.
The main organizer of the Christian genocide was the Ottoman Committee of Union and Progress (CUP) whose aim was to achieve the “Turkification” of Anatolia by eliminating Christian communities.
“Be it resolved that it is the conviction of the International Association of Genocide Scholars that the Ottoman campaign against Christian minorities of the Empire between 1914 and 1923 constituted a genocide against Armenians, Assyrians, and Pontian and Anatolian Greeks.”
“These atrocities,” according to the Pontian Greek Society of Chicago, “include the burning of hundreds of villages and the murder of their inhabitants, particularly in the Pontus region. In September of 1921, this campaign of terror and extermination resulted in the arrest and execution of hundreds of prominent Pontian Greeks on trumped-up charges of treason.
“As a consequence of the deliberate and systematic policy of ‘Turkey for the Turks,’ approximately 2.5 million Armenians, Assyrians, and Greeks were murdered or were victims of the ‘white death.’ This term was used to describe all deaths that resulted from lack of food, disease, and exposure to the elements during the deportations and death marches.”
“The Pontians had suffered a lot throughout their history of nearly 3,000 years,” wrote the author Olga Balytnikova-Rakitianskaia. “But the genocide was the most terrible of their misfortunes, for it deprived the Greeks of the Black Sea not only of their friends and relatives, but also of their native land.”
The final stage of the end of the Greek Orthodox civilization of Pontos was during the 1923 compulsory exchange of populations between the states of Greece and Turkey. As a result of this forced population exchange conducted in the aftermath of the genocide, Anatolian and Pontic Greeks were forcibly removed from their homeland.
In extreme panic and fear of their lives, the majority of Greeks had already fled before the signing of the convention, according to the researcher Aris Tsilfidis.
“The Convention concerning the Exchange of Populations between Greece and Turkey which was signed on the 1st of May 1923 was conducted in order to save the remaining 189,916 Greeks from further persecution and death at the hand of the Turks.”
Even 93 years later, the very few remaining traces of Christianity in Turkey are still being systematically eradicated by state authorities. Apparently, even the supposed “secular” constitution of the country has not enabled many historic churches in the country to remain churches.
Today, Trabzon is one of the cities with the highest number of mosques in Turkey. According to the statistics of Turkey’s Presidency of Religious Affairs (Diyanet), the city had 1,952 mosques in the year 2014, which means there is no shortage of mosques in the city.
The systematic conversions of historic churches or church-museums into mosques, therefore, speak volumes about the level of tolerance, religious freedom and pluralism in Turkey.
In 2015, the Chaldean Churches of St. Joseph and of St. Ephrem in Mosul, for instance, were turned into mosques by ISIS terrorists.
Nuri Kino, president and founder of “A Demand For Action,” told Newsweek the church conversion is proof of the Islamic State’s intentions with Iraqi Christians.
“A year ago they said, ‘Convert, pay or die.’ Then it turned out to be a lie, that even if you pay, you will not be able to stay,” Kino said.
“If they changed a church to a mosque it is further proof of their cleansing, something that many call a genocide,” he added. “They destroy our artifacts, our churches, and try to erase us in any way they can.”
The intentions of Turkey and the Islamic State (ISIS) — in terms of their treatment of Christians and churches — appear to be quite similar, with one exception: The Islamic State is a rogue regime; Turkey is a NATO member and a candidate for EU membership.
[i] “Trebizond: The Last Greek Empire of the Byzantine Era, 1204-1461”, by William Miller, Publisher: Argonaut Inc. 1969.
Get a preview of Clarion Project’s upcoming film, Faithkeepers, about the violent persecution of Christians and other religious minorities in the Middle East. The film features exclusive footage and testimonials of Christians, Baha’i, Yazidis, Jews, and other minority refugees, and a historical context of the persecution in the region.
Uzay Bulut is a Turkish journalist formerly based in Ankara. She is presently in Washington, D.C. Follow her on Twitter at twitter.com/uzayb