In March I posted: “Will the Hagia Sophia in Istanbul become a mosque again?!” Unfortunately, it appears that the Turkish government is going ahead with plans to turn Hagia Sophia back into a mosque for part of the day.
News sources have been speculating for some time about possible legislation which would convert Hagia Sophia into a mosque. In the past week the rumors have been confirmed. According to a newly introduced piece of legislation, Hagia Sophia would continue to be a museum in the morning but would become a mosque in the afternoon and evening. In accordance with Islamic law, its Christian mosaics would be “cast into shadow by ‘dark light.'”
The United States Commission on International Religious Freedom (USCIRF), an independent bipartisan federal advisory body, released a statement a few days ago addressing this legislation:
The U.S. Commission on International Religious Freedom (USCIRF) finds misguided a recent bill introduced in Turkey’s parliament that would change the status of the historic Hagia Sophia in Istanbul from a museum to a mosque. USCIRF urges Prime Minister Erdoğan publicly to reject the bill and affirm that Hagia Sophia’s current status will be maintained…
Given Hagia Sophia’s longstanding connection to Christians and Muslims alike, as well as the rich spiritual meaning it embodies and the powerful emotions it evokes for members of both faiths globally, we believe the pending bill forces Turkey and its people into a zero-sum situation that unnecessarily favors one community over the other. Such an action could deepen the wedge between the government and its delicate relations with its Christian minority, by exacerbating the memories of the terrible religious freedom violations and historical tragedies that occurred in the last century. The problematic implications of such an action are compounded by the deteriorating landscape for democracy and human rights. The past year has seen the imposition of serious new restrictions on internet freedom, privacy, and media freedom, with troubling implications for religious freedom.
The possible reopening of Hagia Sophia as a mosque coincides with a potential presidential campaign by Turkey’s Prime Minister Erdoğan and appears to be an attempt to rally his base. News sources suggest that Erdoğan and other government officials will pray in Hagia Sophia on May 29. This date marks the 561st anniversary of the fall of Constantinople. Such a move, if true, is an affront against Christians in Turkey.
To add insult to injury, it appears that Erdoğan is willing to reopen the Greek patriarchate’s Halki seminary if Hagia Sophia is turned into a mosque. Halki seminary was shut down by Ankara in 1971. Erdoğan has promised to reopen Halki seminary in the past, but has always reneged. As the annual report of the USCIRF notes:
The Turkish government continues to require that only Turkish citizens can be members of the Greek Orthodox Church’s Holy Synod. Although the Prime Minister in 2010 approved dual citizenship for 25 Metropolitans, others were denied. The government’s role in deciding which individuals may be part of the Greek Orthodox Patriarchate represents interference into their internal affairs. The government also has interfered in the selection process of the Armenian Patriarchate’s leadership, and denies religious minority communities the ability to train clergy in Turkey. The Greek Orthodox Theological School of Halki remains closed, as it has been since 1971, despite promises and public statements of support for its reopening by Prime Minister Erdoğan and President Gül. The Armenian Orthodox community also lacks a seminary.
On top of these modern limits on religious freedom, one should not forget the Armenian Genocide circa 1915 and the 1923 “Convention Concerning the Exchange of Greek and Turkish Populations.” Both the Ottoman Empire and the Turkish Republic are not known for upholding religious freedom.
In a recent visit to Germany, the Ecumenical Patriarch of Constantinople gave an interview to Deutsche Welle. At the time he expressed doubts that the Hagia Sophia would be converted into a mosque. According to Enet English he added: “If Hagia Sophia is to become a place to worship God again, it should become a church. It was constructed as a church, not as a mosque. From all perspectives, it is in everyone’s interests that Hagia Sophia remain a museum.” The chancellor of Germany, Angela Merkel, has reportedly condemned Turkey’s recent attempt to turn Hagia Sophia into a mosque.
The move to use Hagia Sophia as a mosque comes at a time in which Christian communities in the Middle East are experiencing great persecution and likely extinction. Further persecutions of Christians in Turkey, long considered one of the most secularized Islamic societies, is an ominous sign for Christian-Islamic relations in the near term.
Christians in the West can no longer ignore the persecution of their fellow Christians throughout the world. Let us keep the Christian communities of the Middle East in our prayers and let us take concrete steps to help alleviate their suffering.