As it was announced that a Pan-Orthodox synod would be held in Istanbul in 2016 (more on this to come!) speculation around the fate of the Hagia Sophia has continued.
As you might know, the Hagia Sophia in Istanbul was once the seat of the Patriarch of Constantinople until the Ottoman invasion of Constantinople in 1453 under Sultan Mehmed II.
Many legends surround the triumphant burst of Mehmed’s troops into the Hagia Sophia when Constantinople fell.
Tradition has it that priests were celebrating the liturgy in the church as the city fell. As the Ottomans burst through the doors of the church “the priests picked up the sacred vessels, the walls of the sanctuary opened, and the priests moved into the masonry of the building, from which they will emerge once more to resume the liturgy when the building again becomes a Christian church.” [Timothy Gregory, A History of Byzantium (Chichester: Wiley-Blackwell, 2010), 397.]
When Mehmed arrived at the Hagia Sophia, he ordered it to be converted into a mosque. He then “had a Muslim cleric climb into the pulpit and proclaim a Muslim prayer, and he himself ascended the altar of the former cathedral and worshiped Allah.” (Gregory, 397)
In recent years there has been momentum within high levels of the Turkish government, perhaps as high as Turkish Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdoğan, to convert the Hagia Sophia back into a mosque, much to the dismay of the Orthodox Church in Istanbul and Christians around the world.
Ecumenical Patriarch Bartholomew I addressed this matter recently: “We will oppose this, as will all Christians be they Orthodox, Catholic or Protestant” … “The Hagia Sophia basilica was built as a testament to Christian faith and if it is to be returned to a cult, it cannot be to any other than the Christian one.”
As I stood in the Hagia Sophia just this past summer captivated by its beauty, I pondered how special it is to both Christians and Muslims in the region and throughout the world. I only want to call readers to the plight of the Orthodox Church in Turkey, as well as, the persecution that many Christian communities and historical sites face throughout the world.
If the Hagia Sophia is converted back into a mosque, that day should be a day of mourning for all Christians around the world. Such a move would symbolize a new era of Christian marginalization and religious intolerance throughout Turkey and the Muslim world.
So let us pray for religious tolerance, but not indifference, in our world.