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Hagia Sophia “Cathedral:” What Happened to Religious Pluralism?

1. Recently, the Turkish President, Recep Tayyip Erdogan woke the world to the news that Hagia Sophia, the world’s largest “Cathedral” would be reverted into a Mosque. The breaking news which is still a developing story soon received backlash from across the globe given the historic value of the structure in political and religious terms. Once more, Erdogan’s pronouncement has stirred up nostalgic feelings in Christians of yesteryears who recall how their forebears regrettably fought the crusades to “win” the faith. Undoubtedly, any debate around an epic edifice like Hagia Sophia is capable of igniting tensions given the strain-relations that existed between the people of the book in the medieval age. This is not to suggest that there were no good days between the Prophet Muhammad (Peace Be Upon Him) and Monks or between St. Francis of Assisi and the Sultan of Egypt.    

2. According to available information, the building of Hagia began in the year 537 when the Byzantine Emperor Justinian I built a gigantic Church overlooking the Golden Horn harbor. The edifice which has a huge dome was believed to be the world’s largest Church building and at “the heart of Orthodox Christianity.” The Catholic Cathedral was built in the 6th century (532–537) before the crusaders captured Constantinople in the 13th century. However, the Byzantines, Ottoman Sultan Mehmed II captured Constantinople (now Istanbul) in 1453. With this capture for Islam, the triumphant conqueror held Juma’at Friday prayers inside Hagia Sophia.

3. Because the Ottomans converted the building into a Mosque, they added four minarets to the exterior and covered the ornate Christian icons as well as gold mosaics with panels of Arabic religious calligraphy. We are told that after centuries in the hands of the Ottoman Empire, the building was converted into a museum in 1934 in an effort to make Turkey a secular state. Since then, Hagia Sophia has become the country’s most popular tourist site which attracts over 3.7 million visitors on a yearly basis.

4. The structure is a United Nations Scientific and Cultural Organisation (UNESCO) world heritage site which became a museum under a 1934 decree by secularist Turkish Republic founding father, Mustafa Kemal Ataturk. Recently, a Turkish court annulled the site’s status as a museum with the claim that its use as anything other than a mosque is not possibly legal. Not long after the announcement, the first Muslim call to prayer was observed at the site which was broadcast on all news stations in Turkey. To fast track, the move, Hagia Sophia’s social media channels were also removed.

5. Since then religious leader have increased their volume in condemnation of the move by the Turkish President to convert Istanbul’s “Cathedral” into a Mosque. It would be recalled that the erstwhile Cathedral suffered the same fate about 1,500 years ago when it was turned into a mosque after the Ottoman conquest of 1453. President Erdogan has insisted that his country exercised its sovereign right by doing so. He revealed that the first Muslim prayers would be held in Hagia Sophia on July 24. However, the Turkish President revealed that despite the decision, the building would remain open to all Muslims, non-Muslims and foreign tourists.

6. Notwithstanding the minority voice of secular opposition groups in Turkey which opposed the move, Islamists in that country have always looked forward to when their voices would overshadow that of the minority so that their long wish would come through. Because Hagia Sophia has huge religious and political significance, both religious and political leaders across the world have expressed worry over the unfortunate development. In particular, Pope Francis said he is pained by Turkey’s decision to turn Hagia Sophia into a Mosque. The Pope who was speaking at a solemn liturgy in the Vatican lamented: “My thoughts go to Istanbul. I think of Santa Sophia and I am very pained.”

7. The Roman Pontiff is not the only religious or political leader to criticize the move. The Church in Russia which is home to the world’s largest Orthodox Christian community has also expressed shock at the ruling by a Turkish court to revert Hagia Sophia into a Mosque. That is not all; even the World Council of Churches (WCCC) has prevailed on President Erdogan to reconsider his decision. There has been condemnation from the governments of the United States of America, Greece, Russia and France.

8. This move has the capacity to silence millions of secular Turks who celebrate their country as a Secular Muslim State. This writer is convinced that there are other sister Arab nations that hold Turkey as a model of how a modern Islamic nation should look like. These smaller nations where there is strict adherence to Sharia Law or Islamic jurisprudence and women are not allowed to drive cars may be scandalized. No doubt, Turkey has evolved as a nation of those who came, saw and conquered, to borrow the words of Julius Caesar. However, the recent grandstanding of sandwiching theocracy with modern democratic principles may only cause that county national diarrhoea. What would happen to the religious sensibilities of “large and prominent Greek and Christian communities throughout what is now Turkey?”

9. Over the centuries, Hagia Sophia has been a source of inspirational-interaction between Europe and Asia. This is because the universal nature of its heritage has made it a remarkable symbol for dialogue and civilization. To be sure, the edifice is a monument which transcends religion. It underscores Istanbul’s former status as a confluence state or melting pot for the fusion of diverse cultures and faiths. Aside from losses in terms of economic gains since fees would no longer be collected in the site, the monument may witness a downturn of foreign tourists. Nothing expands an economy like creating an attractive atmosphere for foreign investors who would visit and tell stories which further sells a nation abroad. It is to be seen how things would be normal after this development. 

10. Nice as the move may sound to some, Hagia Sophia is a victim of modern politics. Does President Erdogan want to teach students of History and International Relations that political correctness can overtake respect for the views and religious sensibilities of others without a crash? His decision seemed to be more about Turkish votes than nationalism. Perhaps the Turkish helmsman has forgotten about James Freeman Clarke’s popular quote which says: “A politician is a man who thinks of the next election while the statesman thinks of the next generation.” When decisions are based on the ballot box, sincerity, morality, the common good and objectivity are buried in the grave of vain ambition. 

11. Those who laud the action cite similar incidences in the medieval ages where Mosques in Spain and Greece such as the Great Mosque of Cordoba were turned into churches, converted into secular spaces or were left to lie in ruin as justification. It is crucial to note that we are in the 21st century where the global appeal for living in a pluralistic society is more. The digital age comes with a huge price for leaders to think diversity and seek for greater opportunities of strengthening the bonds of universal fraternity as enshrined in the principles of living in a pluralistic society. Otherwise, why did Turkey cry foil when it was denied being part of the European Union (EU)? “What is good for the goose is good for the gander” applies here. 

12. If the Israeli Prime Minister, Benjamin Netanyahu were to announce that the AlAqsa Mosque on top of the Temple Mount in the Old City of Jerusalem which is the third holiest site in Islam has been converted to a Jewish Synagogue, the outrage that that move would cause might ignite a World War III. Or if by the same token, the Palestinian President, Mahmoud Abbas converts all the Holy Sites in Palestinian territory into Mosques, the war that would ensure would be more than the June War, 1967 Arab-Israeli War. This means that leaders around the world should consider the public interest and the good of humanity in whatever decisions they are making.    

13. To all intent and purposes, Hagia Sophia has been an epicentre for Interreligious Dialogue. In particular, the Turkish government should have realised that the building could serve as a fertile ground for Dialogue of Religious Experience. Recall that in 2001, John Paul II visited the Umayyad Mosque as the first Pope to visit the Mosque, 1,363 years after Caliph ‘Umar Ibn Khattab visited the Church of the Holy Sepulchre in Jerusalem. It could further spur Dialogue of Religious Experts such as the Christian-Islam Congress which was co-organised by the World Islamic Call Society (WICS). How about the signing of the historic declaration of fraternity between Pope Francis and Grand Imam of Al-azhar, Sheik Ahmed Al-tayeb, Head of Sunni Abu Dhabi, in February 2019?

14. Erdogan’s action calls into question Turkey’s purported celebrated secularity. By this unpopular decision, Turkey has moved three steps back from the microphone of religious and cultural pluralism. To correct this anomaly, the Fathers of Vatican II Council in Nostra Aetate (8/10/1965) – The Declaration on the Relation of Church to Non-Christians, having acknowledged that in the past the relations between Christians and Muslims was fraught with suspicion and fear, now “pleads with all to forget the past, and urges that a sincere effort be made to achieve mutual understanding…” The Fathers of the Church believed that when mutual understanding between Christians and Muslims is realised, only then can we “preserve and promote peace, liberty, social justice and moral values…” 

15. On June 22, 1995, in a story entitled “After 20 Years, a Mosque Opens in Catholicism’s Back Yard,” The New York Times’ Celestine Bohlen reported that in a multinational and multilingual gesture which showcases religious tolerance, the first Mosque was built across the Tiber from the Olympic Stadium, away from the city’s centre and commissioned in the home of the Roman Catholic Church during the papacy of John Paul II. In his weekly general audience at St. Peter’s Square, the Pontiff “threw back at the Islamic world today as he hailed the Mosque’s opening” which he did not attend because he was not invited. Regrettably, the 75-year-old Pope said: “In some Islamic countries, similar signs of recognition of religious freedom are lacking.”

16. In what seemed like a show of reciprocity and positive response to John Paul II’s magnanimity, Dubai’s second Catholic Church, St. Francis of Assisi Jebel Ali was opened on November 15, 2001. Also, Cardinal Pietro Parolin opened the new St. Paul’s Catholic Church, Abu Dhabi, on June 12, 2015. You would recall that St. Mary’s Catholic Church, Dubai was established in 1967. St. Joseph’s Cathedral, Abu Dhabi was also inaugurated on February 25, 1983, as the seat of The Vicar Apostolic of Southern Arabia. This appears as the Mustard Seed for the resurgence of the Christian faith in the region. Currently, there are more than 9 churches in the Arabian Peninsula.

17. UNESCO’s World Heritage Committee should review the monument’s status and also prevail on the Turkish government to respect religious diversity. The organisation should also make a case for those Mosques in Spain and Greece which were converted into churches and other secular spaces. Like Bishop Matthew Hassan Kukah once emphasized: “That you have repainted a stolen car does not make it your own.” The Pontifical Council for Interreligious Dialogue (PCID), The Muslim-Christian Liaison Committee, Muslim World League, Organisation of Islamic Conferences and The Muslim World Congress should also speak up.

18. Religious and political leaders including all people of goodwill should urge the Turkish government to reverse this decision in the interest of peace and genuine globalization. Aside from respect for holy places, the onus lies on Muslims and Christians to undergo true conversation in their Mosques and Churches and initiative intellectual exchanges which translate into practical activities like ensuring religious liberty, addressing poverty, ending injustices and canvassing for peace across the globe.

Fr. Dyikuk is a Lecturer of Mass Communication, University of Jos, Editor – Caritas Newspaper and Convener, Media Team Network Initiative (MTNI), Nigeria.    

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