Pope's Turkish Visit Renews Aya Sofia Dispute A lingering dispute centers over whether an ancient Byzantine landmark should be a mosque, a cathedral or a museum. Debate over the status of Aya Sofia has been re-ignited by Pope Benedict's trip to Turkey.
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Pope's Turkish Visit Renews Aya Sofia Dispute

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Pope's Turkish Visit Renews Aya Sofia Dispute

Pope's Turkish Visit Renews Aya Sofia Dispute

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ROBERT SIEGEL, host:

From NPR News, this is ALL THINGS CONSIDERED. I'm Robert Siegel.

MICHELE NORRIS, host:

And I'm Michele Norris.

Pope Benedict XVI sat down today with the spiritual leader of the world's orthodox Christians on the second day of his visit to Turkey. The pope met with the ecumenical patriarch, Bartholomew I, as part of an effort to improve ties between Catholic and orthodox believers. That effort was supposed to be the focus of Benedict's trip, but after he gave a speech that many Muslims found insulting, the relationship with Islam took center stage.

SIEGEL: A key moment will come tomorrow, when the pope tours the Aya Sofia in Istanbul. The Aya Sofia was built to be a church. It was then turned into a mosque. Nowadays, it is a museum, and as NPR's Ivan Watson reports, if Pope Benedict prays or even crosses himself while visiting Aya Sofia, the gesture is likely to further anger both religious and secular Turks.

IVAN WATSON: A week before the pope arrived in Turkey, dozens of members of a Turkish ultra-nationalist political party occupied one of the world's oldest buildings and began performing Muslim prayers under its massive dome.

Unidentified Men (Protestors): (Speaking foreign language)

WATSON: Soon after, they began chanting slogans against the pope. Police scuffled with the protesters, using pepper spray on them before arresting 39 men.

(Soundbite of political protest)

WATSON: This was an unusual moment of drama in what is normally one of Istanbul's most popular tourist attractions. Every day, tour guides walk thousands of tourists through the museum, where they marvel at its massive proportions.

Unidentified Man (Tour Guide): It is 200 feet tall, and the main dome has a diameter of 100 feet, 100 feet. It's very large.

WATSON: Aya Sofia was first constructed as a cathedral in the heart of the Byzantine Empire in the sixth century.

Unidentified Man: This is the only (unintelligible) where you can Jesus Christ (unintelligible).

WATSON: Nearly 1,000 years later, in 1453 when the Ottomans conquered Constantinople, their first act was to convert the cathedral into a mosque.

Unidentified Man: They are wooden medallions covered with camel skin and painted on them the names of Allah, the prophet Mohammed and the six Caliphates.

WATSON: The Ottoman Empire collapsed following World War I. One of the reforms imposed by the new, strictly secular Turkish Republic was to turn Aya Sofia into a museum. To this day, religious worship of any kind is banned here, much to the disappointment of Turkish Islamist groups who continue to demand that the Turkish state turn the museum back into a mosque.

(Soundbite of political protest)

WATSON: Demonstrators repeated that demand at this rally in Istanbul on Sunday, when thousands protested against the pope's visit.

Mr. ARAFAT SAL AL-AIDENAIR(ph) (Protest Organizer): We consider it still a mosque. It's a holy place for us.

WATSON: Arafat Sal al-Aidenair, one of the protest organizers, says many Turks are already angry at the pope after he quoted a Byzantine emperor last September who described Islam as evil, inhuman and spread by the sword. Aidenair says it will only make matters worse if Pope Benedict tries to pray in Aya Sofia on Thursday.

Mr. AL-AIDENAIR: If he does such a thing, he's going to endure us from the heart, and we cannot accept. We're going to show our political rights to demonstrate against his actions.

WATSON: For Christians, especially Orthodox Christians, Aya Sofia still holds mythical status more than 500 years after it was turned into a mosque.

Dr. ANTHONY LIMBERAKIS (Greek Orthodox Association) It was the great church of Christ.

WATSON: Anthony Limberakis is the leader of a Greek orthodox association based in the U.S., which supports the ecumenical patriarchate in Istanbul.

Dr. LIMBERAKIS: It's a magnificent structure; it's a magnificent edifice. There's no denying that, and if we could have a wish list of everything that certainly would be on it - the re-opening. But we are reality based. We know the situation on the ground.

WATSON: During a visit to Turkey in 1967, Pope Paul VI stunned Turkish officials when he knelt and prayed in Aya Sofia. The Vatican has not indicated what Pope Benedict will do on his visit, but there has been a last-minute change to the pontiff's itinerary. After touring Aya Sofia, he will go next door and step in to the 17th century Blue Mosque. It will be Pope Benedict's first visit ever to a mosque.

Ivan Watson, NPR News, Istanbul.

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