July 10, 2020
An outcry from around the world has greeted a Turkish court’s announced decision, permitting Turkey’s President Recep Tayip Erdogan’s regime to convert the ancient Christian church Hagia Sophia—the Church of the Holy Wisdom—into a mosque.
The revered Christian historical site has served as a museum since the overthrow of the Ottoman Empire following WWI and the subsequent secular presidency of Kemal Ataturk. The magnificent building—an architectural marvel—contains some of the most beautiful Christian frescos and mosaics in the world (including the one above). Hagia Sophia remains the most popular tourist site in Turkey and is regularly visited by millions of Christian pilgrims.
The existing church, located in the heart of Istanbul, is a truly sacred space for Christians worldwide. It stands intact as one the most ancient artifacts of early Christian history:
The first church was built at the same location where there had been a pagan temple before. It was Constantius II who inaugurated Hagia Sophia on 15 February 360. From the chronicles of Socrates of Constantinople, we know that the church was built by the orders of Constantine the Great.
That earliest church was torched during rioting; a second Hagia Sophia was inaugurated in 532. Again, violence led to the church’s damage and destruction.
Today’s Hagia Sophia was completed and inaugurated in by Emperor Justinian the Great in 537; the magnificent mosaics—some of the finest in the world—were completed later in the sixth century. It is for both historic and sacred reasons that voices are protesting the Islamization of the holy site.
On July 10, the United States Commission on International Religious Freedom (USCIRF) decried the declaration that the ancient church would be converted into a mosque. USCIRF Vice Chair Tony Perkins said:
USCIRF condemns the unequivocal politicization of the Hagia Sophia, an architectural wonder that has for so long stood as a cherished testament to a complex history and rich diversity. Both Christians and Muslims alike ascribe great cultural and spiritual importance to the Hagia Sophia, whose universal value to humankind was reaffirmed with its inclusion in the United Nations Educational, Scientific, and Cultural Organization (UNESCO) World Heritage List in 1985.
Just weeks ago, on May 29, Erdogan, who is widely viewed as an aggressive pan-Islamist, celebrated the fifteenth century conquest of Constantinople with festivities centered on Hagia Sophia. It was converted into a mosque when the Byzantine (Christian) army was defeated by the armies of Sultan Mehmed II of the Ottoman Empire on May 29, 1453.
Turkey’s Hurriyet Daily News reported:
…The program was followed with the recitation of the 48th chapter of the Quran, surah Al-Fath…Erdogan expressed gratitude to all those who did not abandon Hagia Sophia, the heirloom of the conquest. He stressed it was important to remember the 567th anniversary with prayers and surah Al-Fath. Erdogan said he had dedicated his life to his beloved Istanbul and noted that if the city was somehow removed from Earth, world history would have to be rewritten. A presentation with the theme of the conquest of Istanbul was performed on a platform in front of the museum.
For years, Hagia Sophia has been a coveted trophy for Erdogan, who publicly cherishes neo-Ottoman Islamist sentiments. And as of the Turkish court decision on July 10, Erdogan’s goal is likely to be achieved.
However, there are other complaints besides that of USCIRF. In fact, another significant obstacle may block Erogan’s way—Russian President Vladimir Putin.
Putin proudly—even pretentiously—belongs to the Russian Orthodox church, and represents it globally. And Hagia Sophia has great significance to the Russian Orthodox world community. In fact, Russian Orthodox Patriarch Kyrill was quoted just days ago in The Moscow Times stating that he is “deeply concerned” by Turkey’s moves, describing Hagia Sophia as “one of the greatest monuments of Christian culture…”
“A threat to Hagia Sophia is a threat to the whole of Christian civilization, and therefore to our spirituality and history,” the Orthodox church leader said. “To this day, for every Russian Orthodox person, Hagia Sophia is a great Christian shrine,” he said, urging the Turkish government to be cautious. He said that altering the current neutral status of the historic building would cause “deep pain” among the Russian people.
Reuters reports that Erdogan has signed an official declaration that Hagia Sophia will, in fact, be converted into a mosque. He has chosen to gamble with his somewhat frayed relationship with Putin as well as with other powers who have ample reason to oppose him.
Will this move successfully fulfill Erdogan’s triumphalist Islamist vision? Or will international reactions—including Russian Orthodox resistance, Greek disfavor, and American disgust—serve as the last straw in global rejection of Erdogan’s neo-Ottoman dream empire? Time will tell.