THE BLOG
06/25/2014 12:02 pm ET Updated Aug 25, 2014

The Conquest of Constantinople, Hagia Sofia and Turkey -- EU

Many countries have a national or independence day to celebrate their nationhood, or their freedom from the yoke imposed on them by another country or an imperial power.

In 1950, the Turkish Council of Ministers established the Istanbul Conquest Society which every year organizes, on May 29, the celebration of the conquest, by the Ottoman Turks, of Constantinople (Istanbul), the capital of the Christian Byzantine Empire from 330 to 1453 AD. The conquest was celebrated again this year with speeches, fireworks and reenactments of the assault, heavily sanitized from what really happened, glorifying and attributing lofty ideals to a great human catastrophe.

The Turkish journalist Burak Bekdil wrote in 2012:

Professor Mehmet Görmez, head of the General Directorate for Religious Affairs, who, at least in words, promotes interfaith dialogue, declared 'Conquest, is not the occupation of lands or the destroying of cities and castles. The conquest is the conquest of hearts! In our history there has never been occupation. In our history, there has always been conquest.' Sadly, his commemorating remarks for Conquest 1453 echoed Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan's sentimental attachment to the Muslim-Turkish supremacy theory. According to Professor Görmez, one of the two pillars of conquest is to 'open up minds to Islam and hearts to the Quran.' Therefore, Turkey's top Muslim cleric reasoned, the Conquest of Constantinople was the conquest of hearts.

The historian S. Runciman in The Fall of Constantinople 1453 writes:

They slew everyone that they met in the streets, men, women and children without discrimination. The blood ran in rivers down the steep streets from the heights of Petra towards the Golden Horn. But soon the lust for slaughter was assuaged. The soldiers realized that captives and precious objects would bring them greater profit.

They looted whatever they considered valuable and they destroyed or burned whatever treasures could not appreciate including valuable library books, icons and mosaics.

"Houses were systematically plundered... The inhabitants were carried off (to be sold) along with their possessions. Anyone who collapsed from frailty was slaughtered, together with a number of infants." The conqueror, Sultan Mehmet,

freed... most of the noble ladies... but he retained the fairest of their young sons and daughters for his own seraglio... Mehmet was said himself to have sent four hundred Greek children as a gift to each of the three leading Moslem potentates of the time, the Sultan of Egypt, the King of Tunis and the King of Grenada... The Sultan ... demand... the boy... for his pleasure... when Notaras still defied the Sultan, orders were given for him and the two boys to be decapitated on the spot... The girl, Thamar, died... the boy was slain by the Sultan for refusing to yield to his lusts.

Was this the opening up of minds to Islam and hearts to the Quran?

What was the motive of the conquest? It was the lust for power and riches by slaughtering, enslaving and taking the belongings of others.

Why a people would celebrate today, and with such a passion, an event like the conquest of Constantinople which not only by itself was a great human catastrophe, but it was also the precursor to many such catastrophes up to the very recent past?

The conquest of Constantinople sealed the end of the Byzantine Empire, and opened the road to 400 to 500 years of brutal Ottoman rule over the people of Balkans -- who were called and treated as rayah (cattle) -- and the forced islamization, and later Turkification, of a great number of them. The collapse of the Ottoman empire and the building of the Turkish state lead to the genocide of the Armenian, Greek and Assyrian populations of Asia Minor (over three and a half million, outright slaughter, death marches, death labor camps), to the pogrom and expulsion in the 1950s and 1960s of about 270,000 Greeks who had remained in Constantinople and the islands of Imbros and Tenedos in accordance with the Treaty of Lausanne in 1923, to the invasion of Cyprus in 1974, and the ongoing occupation of North Cyprus.

The day of the conquest of Constantinople the Sultan rode to Hagia Sofia, the Cathedral of the Greek Orthodox Church and the seat of the Patriarchate of Constantinople since 537 AD, and ordered its conversion into a mosque. It remained as a mosque until 1935 when it was converted into a museum.

The Ottomans destroyed many Christian churches, converted many of them to mosques, and many of them were converted to other uses including the sheltering of animals. The conversion to mosques continues even today. In North Cyprus, over 580 churches have been destroyed.

In a speech on November 16, 2013, Turkey's Deputy Prime Minister Bülent Arınç, cited with pride the conversion into mosques of the churches of Hagia Sophia in Trabzon and Iznik, and expressed his hope that the museum of Hagia Sophia in Constantinople will be soon also converted.

On May 31, 2014, a large group of people, organized by the Anatolia Youth Association, gathered in front of Hagia Sofia demanding its conversion into a mosque. Prominent imams, including Saudi Arabian reciter Shaykh Abdullah Basfar, were present at the event.

Turkey is not converting churches into mosques because there is a need for more mosques and Turkey does not have the resources to build them. The prime minister of Turgey Recep Tayyip Erdogan does not miss any opportunity to boast about the Turkish economic miracle under his leadership and the aspirations of his country to be counted as a great economic and political power.

The message conveyed by those in Turkey who have achieved the conversion of Christian churches into mosques and demand the conversion of Hagia Sofia is that Turkey is an Islamic state and no other religion is tolerated. How can this be reconciled with the insistence of Turkey to join the European Union, which is founded on "the principles of liberty, democracy and respect for human rights and fundamental freedoms," including the freedom of religion?

Many Turks do not agree with the messages conveyed by those celebrating the Conquest of Constantinople and demanding the conversion of churches into mosques, like the courageous Turkish historian Taner Akcam, many courageous journalists (in 2013 Turkey jailed more journalists than any other country), and many intellectuals and human rights activists who have been sentenced, or risk to be sentenced, for "insulting Turkishness." It is wished and hoped that these Turks will be able to turn the tide to the return to the past -- the striving to reestablish Ottomanism -- and steer Turkey to the road of becoming a modern state.