According to Turkish Daily Hurriyet, the Monastery of Stoudios in Istanbul will be converted into a mosque after its restoration next year. The Monastery, which dates back to the fifth century, was the most important in Istanbul in the time of the Byzantine Empire, also serving as a center for the Byzantine intelligentsia. During the rule of Ottoman Sultan Bayezid II, the basilica was converted into a mosque. Following two major fires in the 18th and 19th centuries, the monastery was mostly destroyed and in 1946 it was turned into a museum in line with a ministerial cabinet decision.

However now the local authorities have decided that the Monastery of Stoudios should have same fate as the Hagia Sophia churches in Trabzon and İznik, both of which have already been turned into mosques.

The Monastery of Stoudios decision comes at a time when the conversion of yet another Hagia Sophia into an islamic place of worship is being debated: the historic Hagia Sophia in the heart of Istanbul.

The Hagia Sophia was the Greek Orthodox Patriarchal cathedral of Istanbul (then Constantinople) for almost 1000 years. Following the city's conquest by the Ottoman Empire the building was turned into a mosque and remained so until 1931, when it was converted into a museum by the authorities of the newly founded Turkish Republic.

As Today’s Zaman reported, Turkey’s Deputy Prime Minister Bülent Arınç recently signalled that the government was considering such a move saying, “Currently, we are very close to the Hagia Sophia Mosque. Even if your ears don't hear, I believe that you have a will inside”.

Arinc made the remark as he was addressing attendees at the opening of a new carpet museum behind the famed Hagia Sophia Museum in İstanbul's Sultanahmet district. He added: “Thank God, during my life I witnessed two good things. Two mosques, which are both named Hagia Sophia, were reopened as mosques for worship. These were already mosques. However, they were used for other purposes. Turkey is a secular, social and democratic country, but also a constitutional state. As a constitutional state, Turkey should act according to the law… This was a mosque in the past and was used for worship. A mosque cannot be used for other purposes than worship.”

But what is the purpose of this aggressively pro-islamist policy of Tayyip Erdogan’s government? 

Paradoxical as it may seem, the pro-islamist Erdogan has received praise in the past from non-muslim communities in Turkey. Under his rule there has been progress regarding freedom of religion and acts of persecution committed by previous governments against those communities before the AKP came to power have also been brought to light.

Would they really go so far as to convert one of the most historic cultural heritage sites in the world – one which is visited by hundreds of thousands of tourists every year –  into a mosque?

The answer perhaps lies in the fluid state of Turkish politics over recent months. While the government appears to have emerged relatively unscathed from June’s widespread demonstrations, the balance of power has shifted. Just as Erdogan became the unquestioned leader of the country by methodically neutralising his critics (in the policejudiciarymilitary and press) his lustre suddenly faded. The first ever truly spontaneous uprising of the Turkish people may have been effectively crushed, yet it still dealt serious blows both to the government and to Erdogan himself.

Firstly it put an end to his efforts to implement changes to the country’s Constitution that would allow him to become the first all-powerful President of the Republic since Kemal Ataturk. Of course Erdogan’s vision remains to celebrate Turkey’s centennial as a republic in 2023 as the country’s first president elected by popular vote (currently the president is elected by the parliament), but that goal is looking increasingly difficult to achieve. Aside from attacks from political rivals he is also facing increasingly vocal internal opposition. This may even be the most important achievement of the Occupy Gezi Movement; that it triggered rifts within the pro-islamist bloc, which – in contrast to its pro-secular opposition – always appeared united in its support of Erdogan.

Therefore a crucial test for the Prime Minister – and for those who oppose him (both in and out of his party) – will be the municipal elections due to be held this summer. AKP will undoubtedly lead in the popular vote, but the real battle will be over the mayorship of Istanbul. A loss in the city where Erdogan’s rise to power began would be catastrophic, wreaking havoc within the AKP.

Erdogan’s career in politics got a major boost when he won the Istanbul mayorship in 1994. In Davos in 2009 Erdogan famously dubbed himself a “Kasimpasa man,” referring to the Istanbul neighborhood in which he grew up. “Kasimpasa is Erdogan's home territory, the poor central district where he grew up, only a stone's throw from Taksim Square, the centre of the protests. The stadium of the local football club, Kasimpasa Spor, was recently renovated and renamed after him,” wrote the Guardian in an article published during June’s protests.

The battle over Istanbul is so important that the government is willing to use any available means to prevail. Central to its strategy is winning the backing of voters who have both religious and nationalist sentiments and currently support the Nationalist Movement Party, MHP. Erdogan’s intentions were made clear in the first days of the Gezi Park demonstrations during a speech he made in Istanbul in which he made a number of references to “our brothers in the MHP.” During the gathering alongside the AKP flags being waved by the crowd, several MHP flags also suddenly appeared.

The attempt by the AKP to ‘steal’ its voters provoked a fierce response from the MHP but that has not stopped Erdogan who is determined to convince its voters that they must support his party in the mayoral elections. The conversion of the Monastery of Stoudios into a mosque is a step in this direction. As the elections approach there will undoubtedly be more. It may be that the government will feel it necessary to play its trump card: re-opening the Hagia Sophia as a place of worship – even if only in part so as not to turn the entire monument into a mosque.