— Archbishop Job of Telmessos
The news that has saddened this summer not only the Ecumenical Patriarchate but the entire Christendom as well was the reestablishment of Hagia Sophia from a museum into a mosque. This famous monument of architecture, protected by the UNESCO, was built in the 6th century by the Roman Emperor Justinian in replacement of two previous basilicas respectively built by Emperors Constantine and Theodosius II in the 4th and 5th centuries, and was dedicated to the Divine Sophia, the Wisdom of God. For his project, Justinian called two genius architects, the physician Isidore of Miletus and the mathematician Anthemius of Tralles, who combined the classical plan of a basilica to the classical plan of the rotunda with its dome, in order to create this new prototype of byzantine ecclesiastical architecture. This Great Church of Christ, as it was called, was emblematic of the Ecumenical Patriarchate and served as its headquarters and as its very heart until the fall of the Roman (Byzantine) Empire in 1453. Then, the Ecumenical Patriarchate had to move several times to different other locations, up to its present site at the Phanar, while the Great Church had been converted into a mosque.
Having been designed as a Christian church and functioned as such for nine centuries, Hagia Sophia served as a mosque for five centuries, until Mustafa Kemal Atatürk, the father of modern Turkey, inspired by the French concept of laïcité(separation of religion from the State), decided to make of it a museum in 1934. The conversion of the building into a museum was beneficial, since it enabled the restoration of the marvelous Byzantine mosaics that had been covered by the Ottomans for the purpose of the Muslim worship. The restoration was undertaken in the 1930’s by the Byzantine Institute, founded by Thomas Whittemore, an American familiar with Byzantine art since his travels to Russia, Constantinople, and Mount Athos.
The recent conversion into a mosque of Hagia Sophia was followed by a similar conversion of the famous Monastery of Christ the Saviour of Chora in Istanbul, founded in the 5th century which used to be a museum as well and which is well known for its marvelous byzantine mosaics and frescoes of the 14th century. His All-Holiness Ecumenical Patriarch Bartholomew, while serving at the historic Monastery of the Mother of God “Faneromeni” in Cyzicus (Turkey) last 23 August, expressed his sorrow saying:
“We were hurt by the conversion of Hagia Sophia and Chora Church into mosques. These two unique monuments of Constantinople were built as Christian churches. They express the universal spirit of our faith as well as the love and hope of eternity. The unique nourishment for the soul and a remarkable sight for the eyes, as the Greek writer and painter, Fotis Kontoglou, would say. They are part of the world cultural heritage. We pray the God of love, justice, and peace to enlighten the minds and hearts of those in charge”.
Saddened was also His Holiness Francis, the Pope of Rome, who stated at the angelus on 12 July: “I think of Hagia Sophia, and I am deeply pained…” Similar statements were made by the World Council of Churches interim general secretary Rev. Prof Dr Ioan Sauca who sent a letter to the President of Turkey in which he underlined the following:
“The decision to convert such an emblematic place as Hagia Sophia from a museum back to a mosque will inevitably create uncertainties, suspicions and mistrust, undermining all our efforts to bring people of different faiths together at the table of dialogue and cooperation. Moreover, we greatly fear that it will encourage the ambitions of other groups elsewhere that seek to overturn the existing status quo and to promote renewed divisions between religious communities.”
The World Lutheran Federation also expressed its concerns, underlining that “Hagia Sophia brings Christians and Muslims as well as people of other faiths or no faith at all into a deep understanding of the past and its influence on the present and the future”. The World Communion of Reformed Churches also wrote to the President of Turkey where they stated:
“We are worried that the change of the status of the Hagia Sophia will aggravate religious tensions. In many places in the Middle East and beyond, religious sites are contested. Peace depends on successful arrangements that accommodate the needs and desires of all stake holders that relate to a particular place. In many countries we see the rise of religious tensions – particularly also between Christians and Muslims. And in all these places, it is particularly the vulnerable and marginalized that suffer the most. Islam and Christianity understand themselves as religions of justice and peace. This shared conviction commits our two religions to come together in the common space of shared spiritual and social values. Together we are called to promote the highest values that our religions strive for”.
Even more significative was the reaction of the senior Muslim officials from Al-Azhar, the most important religious institution in Egypt and the leading institution in the Sunni Islamic world, who expressed their opposition to this decision, recalling that it is forbidden by Islam to turn a church into a mosque and that the houses of worship of all religions must be respected, referring here to the Quran itself, where it is said that God protects “monasteries, churches, synagogues, and mosques in which the name of God is much mentioned” (22:40). In their eyes, this decision is fundamentally a mistake, since neither political aims nor good intentions could justify taking such a decision which is unacceptable in essence.
Following this decision, the United Nations Human Right Council appointed experts who are urging authorities to preserve the “outstanding universal value” of Hagia Sophia:
“We encourage the Turkish Government to engage in dialogue with all stakeholders. This is essential to guarantee that the Hagia Sophia continues to be a space for the enjoyment of cultural rights by all, reflecting its diverse Christian, Muslim and secular heritages, and that it continues to be a symbol which brings all people in Turkey together”.
In our opinion, the conversion of these two major Christian Byzantine monuments into a mosque is not justified by any religious need. Indeed, there are already enough functioning mosques in Istanbul, many of which are also ancient Christian churches, and the religious fervor in contemporary Turkey is not anymore the one which used to be at the times of the Ottoman empire. Contemporary Turkey is very much secularized, just as many countries in the West. Therefore, this decision seems a purely political one, and in fact, a very dangerous and a disquieting one. It shows the recuperation and utilization of religion for political purposes. The use of religion for political goals has not proved to be neither benefic nor wise in the history of humanity. The Holy and Great Council of the Orthodox Church (Crete, 2016) has warned us of the dangers of such a manipulation of religion:
“The Orthodox Church resolutely condemns the multifaceted conflicts and wars provoked by fanaticism that derives from religious principles. There is grave concern over the permanent trend of increasing oppression and persecution of Christians and other communities in the Middle East and elsewhere because of their beliefs; equally troubling are the attempts to uproot Christianity from its traditional homelands. As a result, existing interfaith and international relations are threatened, while many Christians are forced to abandon their homes. Orthodox Christians throughout the world suffer with their fellow Christians and all those being persecuted in this region, while also calling for a just and lasting resolution to the region’s problems.” (The Mission of the Orthodox Church in Today’s World, C.4.3).
Religions and States ought to collaborate hand in hand in today’s world in order to spread justice and peace, and not antagonism and war. While the States ought to look after the common good of all people, the mission of the Christian Church remains to be preaching “Christ crucified, unto the Jews a stumbling block, and unto the Greeks foolishness, but unto them that are called, both Jews and Greeks, Christ the power of God, and the Wisdom of God” (1 Co 1:23-24).