by Ralph Sidway, guest contributor
One of the great sorrows — after the church attacks, murders, abductions, rapes and forced conversions — caused by the Islamic persecution of Christians must be the defilement of holy icons by Muslims. Indeed, it is highly probable that the iconoclast heresy which rocked Christianity in the seventh through the ninth centuries was triggered or accelerated by the brutal and sudden rise of Islam after the death of Muhammad in 632A.D.
Even after the Seventh Ecumenical Council upheld the use of icons (in 787), the iconoclasts continued to trouble the Church, led by the emperor Theophilus. But after his death, in 842 the icons were permanently restored, and continue to be a defining characteristic of the Orthodox Church and all the Eastern Christian communions (the Coptic Church, Assyrian and Chaldean churches, etc.).
Islam is strongly set against images of any kind, although one may encounter in rare Islamic books depictions of Muhammad and his earliest companions, or Muhammad being visited by the spirit-being supposed to be the archangel Gabriel. But when it comes to Christian images of Jesus Christ, the Virgin Mary, or the saints, Islam is the “icon smasher” extraordinaire. (“Icon smasher” is a literal translation of “iconoclast.”)
In the Christian lands conquered by Muslims from the seventh century onwards, only a small percentage of churches were left to serve the indigenous Christian population. Those churches not destroyed were converted into mosques, their frescoes and mosaics painted or covered over, or, if they were panel icons, hacked into pieces and burned.
Naming and confronting Islam’s profound, innate hatred of traditional Christianity’s holy images helps us grasp the deeper motivations behind the recent push to re-convert all the Hagia Sophia churches of Turkey into mosques, including and especially the great Hagia Sophia of Constantinople (Istanbul) built by the Emperor Justinian in 537A.D.
The converting of Hagia Sophia from triumphal mosque commemorating Islam’s victory over Constantinople in 1453 into secular museum where Muslim prayers no longer would be offered, was a deeply humiliating political affront to the Islamist ego, a tectonic after-shock from the resounding defeat of the decrepit Ottoman Empire by the Western (Christian) powers in World War I.
But the secular and political significance of this conversion pales before the theological.
The restoration of the original Christian frescoes and mosaics, revealing once again the holy images of Christ, His Mother, and the Saints, is the ultimate theological affront to the Islamic supremacist mind. It is the icons themselves — which proclaim the Christian faith in Jesus Christ as the incarnate Word of God, and therefore God Himself — that outrage Muslims as the worst possible sin, that of shirk, the association of another with Allah, whom Muslims believe to be far beyond having a son or any other in association with him.
Because of this hyper-charged, religiously-based hatred of Christianity’s holy images, with the re-Islamicization of Turkey we see special emphasis on once again covering (or even destroying) all Christian icons, most readily accomplished by simply converting all the Hagia Sophia churches into mosques. This is in fact a modern application of the Pact of Omar, the classic conditions imposed by Muslims on conquered Christians from the 7th century on.
This is the same phenomenon that we saw in Egypt, as the Muslim Brotherhood sought to implement Sharia Law as the foundation for the country’s new constitution, and unleashed a wave of persecution against Egypt’s Coptic Christians, in accordance with the Pact of Omar. Likewise in Syria, where the jihadist rebels have openly stated that they intend to enforce the Sharia, even as they strive to rid the country of Christians by massacring whole villages at a time. So now Turkey applies anew the Conditions of Omar to eradicate the last vestiges of Christian iconography.
Does the West really want to support such a movement?
Ralph Sidway is an Orthodox Christian researcher and writer, and author of Facing Islam: What the Ancient Church has to say about the Religion of Muhammad. He operates the Facing Islam blog.