The recent decision by Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan to convert the 1,500-year-old UNESCO World Heritage Site of Hagia Sophia into a mosque has sparked controversy across the religious and political spectrum. A report by Bulut Güneş.

[New City Magazine – October 2020 page 8-9]

Hagia Sophia represents a unique place in the world for its beauty and complex history. Consecrated by Emperor Justinian in AD 537 as a church dedicated to Divine Wisdom, Hagia Sophia, stood as the largest religious building and one of the most significant places in Christendom for nearly 1000 years.

When in 1453 Mehmet II conquered Constantinople marking the end of the Eastern Roman Empire, Hagia Sophia, like almost all churches in the city, was turned into a mosque and it continued to work as such for nearly 500 years. With the rise of modern republican Turkey, in 1934, Mustafa Kemal Ataturk ordered that the building be turned into a museum as a heritage site for the whole of humanity.

Hagia Sophia – Holy Wisdom

Last July 2020, the Turkish government issued a decree concerning the conversion of the site back into a mosque. This has sparked deep disappointment especially among the local Christians but also in some quarters with the Muslim population. In Turkey, Christians number approximately 80,000 (though nobody really knows the real figures with thousands of refugees from Iraq and Syria as well as many crypto-Christians who prefer to be more secretive about their religious background) in a population of over 84 million.

The Greek Foreign Ministry defined the conversion as the ‘religious and nationalist fanatic ramblings of today’s Turkey.’ Ecumenical Patriarch Bartholomew, spiritual head of many Orthodox Christians, said the change would be divisive and Pope Francis expressed sadness and disappointment. UNESCO said revoking the museum status undermined an important ‘symbol for dialogue’. The Greek Orthodox Archbishop Elpidophoros of America, a man of great influence and under normal circumstances in positive dialogue with the Turkish authorities, defined on Twitter the act as ‘a real shame, because no one is deserving of such a narrow-minded policy. Demeaning humanity’s monuments to serve fleeting political schemes does not diminish the monuments themselves, but the schemers.’ Many people across the spectrum feel that Hagia Sophia represents a unique place in world history, but above all, it is a sign of God’s presence and as such should continue to be freely and completely accessible to all.

The Turkish authorities claimed that Hagia Sophia’s mosaics would be preserved and only covered during times of prayer. I went to visit the site just two days after the conversion and although the mosaic of the ‘Theotokos and Child Jesus’ is currently only being covered and uncovered during Muslim prayers, other mosaics remain permanently covered. This deeply saddened me.

The Church of the Holy Saviour

If this was not enough, as of 21st August 2020, another world heritage site in Istanbul, the Church of the Holy Saviour in Chora, a true jewel of Byzantine art, until now a museum also started to function as a mosque. This has given huge heartache to Christians given the fact that the interior of the Holy Saviour in Chora is completely covered with magnificent and truly breath-taking mosaics and frescoes. It is likely that their view will be lost to the world. For this, there are no words.

The atmosphere is in fact very tense especially because many people feel the move is more political than religious. The ‘conversions’ come at a time of great political and social instability in the country. Erdogan’s power is tested on so many fronts: the EU’s ongoing tension due to the refugee crisis, growing inflation, the political tension with Greece over disputed territorial water in the Aegean Sea, but most of all – the recent symbolic loss of Istanbul in the last round of local elections.

Many believe that the move is part of Erdogan’s push to assert his version of an exclusionary religious Islamic identity in Turkey, in order to strengthen his political power.

An issue of trust

Turkey is living a century-long process of soul-searching in which it seems to be oscillating between two apparently irreconcilable positions: the secularists who following the legacy of Ataturk have ruled the country for the best part of the last century on one side, and then, the religious majority on the other side who, in the last two decades, see in Erdogan their champion.

I have lived long enough in the country to know that the situation is much more complex than that, but I am convinced that the Hagia Sophia controversy goes far beyond the Muslim–Christian tension.

It remains a fact that recent events have dented trust in the dialogue with the authorities regarding the rights of minorities and seem to turn the clock back on the 2019 Abu Dhabi declaration on universal fraternity, in which Christians and Muslims pledged to strive more and more towards a deeper mutual understanding and knowledge of each other’s history. As a Christian and someone who deeply loves Turkey, I feel that we cannot allow these events to stop us from believing and working for dialogue at all levels.

I am also convinced that people of faith, regardless of their own religious affiliation, are called to go beyond the mere preservation of places of worship. The latest, though understandably painful events, should remind us all that our faith – although rooted in the past – is alive in the present for the presence of the Risen Lord, whose presence transcends the ‘temple’.

©Photos of the Author

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