Holy Wars: Sacred geography in transition
by B S Harishankar on 02 Jun 2019 51 Comments

In 2015, at the Biennale art festival in Venice, Swiss artist Christian Büchel transformed the ancient Catholic church of Santa Maria della Misericordia into a mosque. Büchel decorated the baroque walls with Arabic writing, covered the floor with a prayer rug, and hid the crucifix behind a prayer niche indicating the direction of Mecca, the sacred city of Islam. It was much more than a provocation.  Christoph Büchel’s installation, titled “The Mosque: The First Mosque in the Historic City of Venice”, as he claimed, was intended to promote religious tolerance.


Vittorio Zappalorto, Venice’s acting mayor, said the Biennale organizers asked permission for an artistic exhibit, but created a mosque. The local Muslim population offered prayers in the church turned mosque. This led to huge public protests in Venice, and ultimately it was closed down by the authorities.


On 15 April 2019, a fire destroyed much of the 800 year old Notre Dame Cathedral in the heart of Paris. Noted writer Emil Cioran once cast a prophecy that, “the French will not wake up until Notre Dame becomes a mosque”. A Russian author has already foreseen an Islamic France. Written by Elena Chudinova, a Russian, who is a traditionalist Catholic from Moscow, the book titled, The Mosque of Notre Dame, 2048, lays out a dark future when France has become a Muslim nation and the famous cathedral has been turned into a mosque.


Rapid migration of Muslims into Europe is tremendously increasing, following the disastrous wars in Syria and Iraq. Simultaneously, conversion of churches into mosques and attacks in Europe has alarmingly escalated every year. In the French region of Vierzon, the Church of Saint-Eloi was turned into a mosque. The diocese of Bourges put the church on sale, and a Muslim organization offered to buy it. At Quai Malakoff, in Nantes, the old Church of Saint Christopher was converted into the mosque of Forqane. More than 800 churches were attacked in France during the year 2018 alone.


Muslims at Duisburg in Germany are now clamoring to turn empty churches in the city into mosques. At Hamburg, a Lutheran church was purchased by the Muslim community. Recently, the Islamic Al-Nour centre started the conversion of the Capernaum church into a mosque.


Islam is set to displace Christianity in Britain. The Hyatt United Church was bought by the Egyptian community to be converted to a mosque. St Peter’s Church has been converted into the Madina Mosque. The Brick Lane Mosque was built on a former Methodist church. The Fatih Camii Mosque in Amsterdam once was the Saint Ignatius Church. A synagogue in The Hague was turned into the Al Aqsa Mosque. “History teaches us that these transformations are rarely innocent”, observed Bertrand Dutheil de La Rochère, an assistant to Marine Le Pen, leader of the National Front party, in the context of ongoing conversion of churches into mosques.


In recent years, the pace of Muslim migration to Greece has also increased alarmingly. The head of the Orthodox Church of Greece, Ieronymos II, said in 2016  that the government’s outreach to Muslim migrants posed “a danger of Islamization” and was part of a plan to “de-Hellenize and de-Christianize” the nation. In 2017, Abbot Gregory of Dochariou Monastery of the Orthodox Church was quite apprehensive that Greece would soon become a Muslim country. Already there are unpleasant memories of conversion of Orthodox churches in Greece as mosques, such as Fethiye Mosque in Athens, during the Ottoman Period.


The church, which once owned one-third of the soil of Europe by the thirteenth century, as Will Durant rightly put it, is fast selling its land and buildings to a resurgent Islam which they ousted from Spain though Reconquista in the twelfth century. Polish forces also stopped the advance of Ottoman armies at the siege of Vienna (1683). Europe dominated every Muslim country in the world and violently curbed anti-colonial resistance of Muslim populations. Travel writer William Dalrymple, in, From the Holy Mountain, charges the west and its repeated humiliation of the Muslim world for the rise of Muslim fundamentalism. Now a belligerent Islam is back to settle scores with Christianity.


The city of Antioch in Turkey is considered the cradle of Christianity. It became a thriving centre of Mediterranean Christianity and one of the five major Apostolic Sees, the others being Constantinople, Jerusalem, Rome and Alexandria. The recent terrorist attack on the Temple of the Apostles Peter and Paul at Antioch also claimed the lives of innocent children. The bombings and destruction of ancient Coptic churches by Islamic militants at Alexandria has been on massive scale.


Constantinople, which bestrides Asia and Europe, and was capital of the Byzantine empire is hailed by Thomas Madden, author of Istanbul, as the greatest Christian city in the world. It was renamed Istanbul after the Ottoman conquest of the city in 1453. When Constantinople fell to the Ottoman Turks in 1453, virtually all of city’s surviving cathedrals and churches were, after being desecrated and thoroughly plundered, converted into mosques. Its renowned Hagia Sophia Byzantine cathedral was changed into a mosque.


Since 1935, this cathedral  is a museum, but Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan has now  announced that it could be again reconverted into a mosque. Nine other former Hagia Sophia churches are either being used as mosques already, or are in the process of being renovated for this purpose. The youngest of these, in Trabzon, was converted into a mosque in 2013, according to senior Turkish journalist Uzay Bulut. President Erdogan took control of churches in the war-torn southeastern city of Diyarbakir in Turkey in 2016, and declared them state property.


The escalating violence against Christians and Biblical heritage sites by Islamic militants is not a post-colonial phenomenon, but has a history going back to the Crusades. It turned worse, and according to Karen Armstrong, writer and Catholic nun, in her study on Islam, Christian crusaders from western Europe attacked Jerusalem, the third holiest city in Islam after Mecca and Medina, massacred its inhabitants and established states in Palestine, Lebanon and Anatolia. Graham Fuller in his work, A World Without Islam, highlights that the first Crusade also marked the first vigorous call for Jihad against western invaders.


Jerusalem is now virtually bleeding due to frequent attacks by Islamic and leftist groups. The latest was in 2017 when Marxist-Leninist sponsored Popular Front for Liberation of Palestine (PFLP) and Islamic Sunni fundamentalists, Hamas, attacked Jerusalem. Noted historian Simon Sebag Montefiore in his classic, Jerusalem: The Biography, has rightly observed that the unending struggle for Jerusalem - massacres, mayhem, wars, terrorism, sieges and catastrophes - have made this place into a battlefield.


The Islamic State has pledged to wipe out Christian identity in the Mediterranean and Middle East. Canon Andrew White, the “Vicar of Baghdad”, says Christianity is over in Iraq. The Islamic State destroyed St Elijah’s site at Mosul, the ancient Christian monastery believed to have been constructed by Assyrian monks in the late 6th century. They also destroyed a 7th century church in Tikrit, considered one of the oldest and the most renowned in the area. Militants also demolished the Assyrian Green Church, first built in 700 AD, continuing their devastation of religious shrines in the provinces of Kirkuk, Nineveh and Salahuddin. Hundreds of Christian heritage churches have been destroyed by Islamic State, such as the Cathedral of St. Simon dating to the fourth century AD and the Mar Takla monastery in Maaloula.


In medieval period, Vatican marshaled campaigns to capture mosques and convert them into churches, especially in Spain. The Great Mosque of Córdoba in Spain is the second largest mosque in the world after Mecca. After King Ferdinand III of Castile captured it in 1236, the mosque was converted into a cathedral. Later, a cathedral was built at the center of the old mosque, configuring the current Mosque-Cathedral of Cordoba.


The minaret of the Great Mosque of Seville, compared to the one at Cordoba, was turned into a church bell tower. The mosque at Jerez was converted into a church after Reconquista in 1526. Al-Dabbagin Masjid was converted into a church after the 1085 Christian conquest. The Church of Santa Maria de Tarifa was built in the 13th century over the remains of a mosque. Al-Mustimim mosque was converted into a church. Al-Dabbagin Masjid and Mezquita Bab-al-Mardum mosques in Spain were also converted into churches.


The ongoing capture of sacred pilgrimage sites, their destruction and conversion of churches into mosques has caused much animosity and hatred between Islam and Christianity.


The Christchurch mosque shootings were two consecutive terrorist attacks at Al Noor Mosque and Linwood Islamic Centre, New Zealand, on 15 March 2019, killing 50 persons. According to Professor Douglas Pratt, University of Auckland, an international expert on religious terrorism, the attacks are a form of “Christian terrorism” and white supremacy. Sri Lankan State Defence Minister Ruwan Wijewardene observed that the ghastly Sri Lanka Easter bombings on 21 April 2019 were retaliation for the Christchurch attack.


Southeast Asian churches in Indonesia and Malaysia have also been constantly attacked  by Islamic militants. In Southwest Asia, the 2017 Quetta church attack blasts at Roman Catholic Church and Christ Church at Youhanabad town of Lahore in 2015 and suicide bomb attack at All Saints Church in Peshawar in 2013 are few instances also claimed the life of hundreds in Pakistan.


In Middle Eastern countries such as Egypt, Iran, Iraq, Syria and Saudi Arabia, the situation of Christians has reached an alarming stage, close to genocide and mass exodus. An estimated 700,000 Christians have fled Syria since the start of the civil war in 2011. In areas seized by the Islamic State, Christians have been ordered to convert to Islam, pay jizya or face death. Melkite Greek Catholic Patriarch Gregorios III Laham said thousands of Christians have been killed, entire villages cleared, and dozens of churches and Christian centers damaged or destroyed. But, the secular western world is incapable of fully understanding the threat of a reawakened Islam in the Middle East, according to Iraqi Archbishop Louis Sako of Kirkuk.


Currently, Africa is virtually torn due to religious riots and massacres between Islam and Christianity. Religious violence plagues the Central African Republic.


Contemporary historian Niall Ferguson wrote about Europe’s future as “the creeping Islamization of a decadent Christendom”. One of Christendom’s most prominent atheist advocates is the Italian philosopher and politician Marcello Pera. In 2004, he delivered a series of lectures along with then-Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger that presented their shared view of the need to restore the fast diminishing Christian identity in Europe to counter both intellectual degeneration and Islamic fundamentalism. Patriarch Kirill of Moscow warned that Europe must not lose its Christian roots. Hungarian Prime Minister Viktor Orban said Europe and European culture have Christian roots. Since 2012, the country’s constitution has officially recognized “the role of Christianity in preserving nationhood”.


Cardinal Christoph Schoenborn, also Archbishop of Vienna, earlier warned during a special celebration for the Holy Name of Mary Church festival, that Muslims wanted to eradicate Christians and conquer Europe. The Cardinal said, according to the Archdiocese of Vienna: “Will there be an Islamic conquest of Europe? Many Muslims want that and say: Europe is at its end”. In a recent interview, Cardinal Robert Sarah cautioned that Islam is a threat to the existence of Europe and if Europe disappears, Islam will invade the world and will completely change culture, anthropology and moral vision. 

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