MELISSA BLOCK, HOST:
From NPR News, this is ALL THINGS CONSIDERED. I'm Melissa Block.
ROBERT SIEGEL, HOST:
And I'm Robert Siegel. In Istanbul, a fifth century Byzantine monastery is slated for restoration. The bad news for Turkey's dwindling Greek community is that the government wants to turn it into a mosque. As NPR's Peter Kenyon reports, Turkey is considering doing the same for a number of other historically Christian sites.
PETER KENYON, BYLINE: In the working class, religiously mixed neighborhood of Samatya, ancient stone walls rise up amid rundown apartments and shops. A sign on the door reads museum closed to visitors. A guard opens the door to reveal badly neglected, weed-grown ruins and a dog excited to have someone to keep out for a change.
(SOUNDBITE OF DOG BARKING)
KENYON: A quick glimpse inside reveals nothing 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. These walls were erected in the fifth century A.D., just a couple of centuries after the Emperor Constantine rebuilt the ancient 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, older than the Hagia Sophia, the most famous Byzantine structure in modern Istanbul.
Sackings by the Crusaders and then the Turks left the monastery in ruins and subsequent restorations were undone by two fires and an earthquake. In the mid 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 Adnan Ertem, head of Turkey's General Directorate of Foundations, told state TV monastery's status as a museum was revoked by the Cabinet last year, clearing the way for restoring what Ertem clearly sees first and foremost as a mosque.
ADNAN ERTEM: (Speaking foreign language)
KENYON: The place is devastated. The dome has fallen in, it will need a lot of work, says Ertem, adding that, as a mosque, it has historical importance for Turks. Then he adds, yes, it has an importance for Christians as well. Mihail Vasiliadis is used to hearing symbols of Greek civilization in Turkey dismissed. He runs, single-handedly, 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.
MIHAIL VASILIADIS: (Through translator) 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. We were waiting for so long to hear that Stoudios might be restored, and now this.
KENYON: 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. Events with names such as the Constantinople massacre of 1821 or the pogrom of 1955 resonate painfully in this community. But Vasiliadis says this move to convert churches into mosques, already underway in the cities of Trabzon and Iznik, is just another example of short-term political thinking.
VASILIADIS: (Through translator) 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. The abandoned places reflect many of the cultures of Anatolia, but all this government cares about is consolidating the Muslim-led nation-state.
KENYON: It will take years for the restoration project to be completed. In the meantime, recent remarks by a senior government minister have rekindled fears 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 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. Peter Kenyon, NPR News, Istanbul.