A historically significant but now-crumbling fifth century Byzantine monastery in Istanbul is finally slated for restoration. But for Turkey's dwindling Greek community, the bad news is that the government wants to turn the Stoudios monastery into a mosque.
It's just one of several such conversions of historically Christian sites that the government is considering. And there's even talk that the Hagia Sophia, the most famous Byzantine structure in modern Istanbul, will be reconverted into a mosque.
In the working-class, religiously mixed neighborhood of Samatya, ancient stone walls rise amid run-down apartments and shops. On one door is a sign that reads "Museum closed to visitors." A guard opens the door to reveal badly neglected, weed-grown ruins.
A quick glimpse inside reveals nothing that's recognizable as a former Byzantine church. In its day, however, the Stoudios monastery was a pre-eminent Christian site – which is why the Greek community is dismayed to hear that the government plans to restore it as a mosque.
The monastery walls were erected in the 5th century, just a couple of centuries after the Emperor Constantine rebuilt the ancient Greek city of Byzantium as Constantinople, the eastern capital of the Roman Empire.
The Stoudios monks were known for their religious poetry and their calligraphy, turning out gorgeous illuminated manuscripts, some of which survive today.
The monastery housed the Church of St. John the Baptist. But sackings by the Crusaders and then the Turks left the monastery, which also served as a mosque for a period of time, in ruins. Subsequent restorations were undone by two fires and an earthquake. In the 20th century, both the monastery and the Hagia Sophia were turned into museums.
Adnan Ertem, head of Turkey's General Directorate of Foundations, told state TV that the Cabinet revoked the monastery's status as a museum last year, clearing the way for restoring what Ertem sees first and foremost as a mosque — which it had been for a period of time as well.
"The place is devastated – the dome has fallen in, it will need a lot of work," Ertem said, adding that the site has historical importance for Turks as a mosque. Then he noted that, "Yes, it has an importance for Christians as well."
Defending Greek culture in Turkey
Mihail Vasiliadis is accustomed to hearing Turks dismiss symbols of Greek civilization in Turkey. He single-handedly runs Apoyeu Matini, the Greek-language paper that serves what's left of Turkey's Greek population, which Vasiliadis says is probably fewer than 2,000 people these days.
"I'm sorry to see the monastery come to public attention for this reason, because it's a very important place, both religiously and culturally," he says. "We were waiting for so long to hear that Stoudios might be restored, and now this."
Vasiliadis doesn't think the government, with roots in political Islam, is intent on reviving ill will toward religious minorities, something ethnic Greeks have bitter experience with.
Outbreaks of anti-Greek violence such as the Constantinople massacre of 1821 or the pogrom of 1955 resonate painfully in this community. But Vasiliadis says the move to convert churches into mosques – already under way in the cities of Trabzon and Iznik – is just another example of short-term political thinking.
"So many cultural artifacts have been abandoned, and when they do restore things, they ignore Byzantine culture and focus on the last 500 years, the period of Muslim control," Vasiliadis says. "The abandoned places reflect the many cultures of Anatolia, but all this government cares about is consolidating the Muslim-led nation-state."
It will take years for the restoration project to be completed.
In the meantime, recent remarks by a senior government minister have rekindled talk that even the Hagia Sophia itself may be reconverted into a mosque.
The minister said the Hagia Sophia — which like Stoudios was first a church, then a mosque and now a museum — "looks sad" to him, and he hopes it will be happy again soon.
Vasiliadis' response? He smiles and says maybe it's sad because it wants to be an Orthodox basilica again. But he knows that the best the Greek community can hope for is to keep it as a museum, and that's far from certain.