Turkey’s conversion of the Hagia Sophia from a museum into a mosque in July this year has raised complex questions over reconciling the country’s rich cultural and religious heritage with its treatment of the minorities that form part of its varied demographic. Built originally as a cathedral in the sixth century, the Hagia Sophia has stood as a powerful symbol of its hybrid past of being both a cathedral and a mosque, until being turned into a museum in 1934. Resonant of Turkey’s diverse history as the ancient capital of the Roman, Byzantine and Ottoman Empires, the Hagia Sophia’s unifying symbolism has often been on a collision course with Turkey’s political and ideological mandate, the thrust whereof has been to curb the rights of the minority communities that reside there and homogenise the Turkish population. These restrictions have meant a violation of Turkey’s obligations under international law, which calls for the safeguarding of the interests of all its ethnic, religious and linguistic minorities.
The Treaty of Lausanne, which defined the borders of modern-day Turkey, also provides the crux of the legal framework for the protection of Turkey’s minorities. Articles 38 (1-2) and 39(4) in particular provide wide guarantees of freedom to minorities of all denominations, Article 38(1) stating inter alia, that the Turkish Government must ensure the, “full and complete protection of life and liberty to all inhabitants of Turkey without distinction of birth, nationality, language, race or religion.” Notwithstanding these provisions, and in the lack of an internationally recognised definition of a minority, Turkey has given the term an idiosyncratic meaning by saying that only non-Muslim minorities come within its purview. Although the Treaty does not specify any non-Muslim minorities, Turkey’s official position has been to accept only the Greeks, Armenians and the Jews, the three largest Millet groups in the Ottoman administration system as minorities.
This has resulted in a de facto exclusion of all other non-Muslim minorities in the country, including amongst others, the Assyrians, the Baha’is, the Yezidis and followers of the Syrian Orthodox Church and the Roman Catholic Church. Contrary to the guarantees of freedom vouchsafed within the Lausanne framework, Turkey’s minority communities have faced continuous barriers in being able to realise their ethnic, religious and linguistic identities. They are often denied the freedom to use their own language in schools and the media, face obstacles in accessing their places of worship, preserving their cultural heritage and are often unable to opt out of compulsory courses on Sunni Islam in schools.
These restrictive policies by the Turkish Government have meant a continuous violation of the Treaty of Lausanne, even though Turkey has reinforced its commitment to the same in ratifying other treaty bodies, including The International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights (“the ICCPR”). Turkey became a signatory to the ICCPR in August 2000 and incorporated it into its domestic law in September 2003. Crucially however, Turkey entered a reservation with respect to Article 27 thereof, which makes generous provision for the protection of ethnic, religious and linguistic minorities. Ironically, while the wording of the reservation states that Turkey shall reserve the right to interpret and apply the provisions of Article 27 of the ICCPR in accordance with the related provisions and rules of, inter alia, the Treaty of Lausanne, it has been continuously flouting its obligations arising under the same.
Turkey’s push to artificially limit the scope of the Lausanne framework by adopting a narrow construction of the term minority betrays the reality of obstacles faced by its minority populations in being able to realise their legal rights and reside freely in the country. These impediments are also evident in Turkey’s push to amalgamate its Muslim minorities such as the Laz and the Kurds into ‘one nation’ by denying them minority status altogether. This propensity to homogenise the country seemed to seal the fate of the Hagia Sophia, which in a profound departure from its legacy has become centre-stage to Turkey’s political maneuvering and an obdurate defiance of its legal obligations. The religious right wing supporter-base of its conversion underscores an ominous presence of vigilantism, which will only seek more divisions in an already fractured society.