Eastern Orthodox Patriarch Says Hagia Sophia Belongs To All of Humanity, Amid Mosque Plans
The Basilica of Hagia Sophia was built in 537 under the Byzantine Emperor Justinian and for a time, was the largest building in the world and the largest Christian church.
ISTANBUL, Turkey — While Turkey’s president has made moves to close the museum at the former Christian basilica Hagia Sophia and revert it to a mosque, the Patriarch of Constantinople has said the massive site should remain as it is, a place of Christian-Muslim encounter that belongs “to all of humanity.”
The Eastern Orthodox Ecumenical Patriarch Bartholomew of Constantinople said, “the Turkish people have the great responsibility and honor to make the universality of this wonderful monument shine,” given that as a museum it is “the symbolic place of encounter, dialogue, solidarity and mutual understanding between Christianity and Islam.”
Turkey’s President Recep Tayyip Erdogan has moved to declare the Hagia Sophia a mosque.
On July 2, a Turkish administrative court ruled on whether to revoke the 80-year-old decree that declared the building a museum. A senior Turkish official told Reuters that the ruling, revoking the decree, is likely to be announced July 10.
“This nation has been waiting for 86 years. The court lifted the chain of bans on Hagia Sophia,” pro-government columnist Abdulkadir Selvi wrote in the Hurriyet newspaper.
Patriarch Bartholomew addressed the place of Hagia Sophia in his homily during Divine Liturgy at the Church of the Holy Apostles in Istanbul June 30, Fides news agency reports.
Hagia Sophia belongs “belongs not only to those who own it at the moment, but to all humanity,” he said.
The Basilica of Hagia Sophia was built in 537 under the Byzantine Emperor Justinian. For a time it was the largest building in the world and the largest Christian church. It served as the cathedral of the Patriarch of Constantinople before and after the Great Schism split Western and Eastern Christianity into Catholic and Eastern Orthodox Churches. After the Ottoman capture of Constantinople in 1453, the basilica was converted into a mosque. Under the Ottomans, architects added minarets and buttresses to preserve the building, but the mosaics showing Christian imagery were whitewashed and covered.
In 1934, under a secularist Turkish government, the mosque was turned into a museum. Some mosaics were uncovered, including depictions of Christ, the Virgin Mary, John the Baptist, Justinian I, and Zoe Porhyrogenita.
It was declared a World Heritage Site under UNESCO, the United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization. If the museum becomes a mosque, it is believed that the mosaics will have to be covered during Muslim prayers, as well as the seraph figures located in the high basilica dome.
Patriarch Bartholomew said it is “absurd and harmful that Hagia Sophia, from a place that now allows the two peoples to meet us and admire its greatness, can again become a reason for contrast and confrontation.” He said the Hagia Sophia is a center of life “in which East and West embrace.” To convert it to a mosque “will cause a break between these two worlds.”
The Eastern Orthodox Christian leader warned that converting it to a mosque “will push millions of Christians around the world against Islam.”
The political foes of Erdogan, a former mayor of Istanbul, say he raises the issue of restoring a mosque at Hagia Sophia every time he faces a political crisis to appeal to his nationalist or religious supporters. His party lost local elections in Istanbul last year, and Turkey’s faltering economy is suffering further due to the coronavirus pandemic, the New York Times reports.
Some of Erdogan’s supporters speak of the Hagia Sophia as the third holiest place in Islam, behind the Grand Mosque of Mecca and Al-Aqsa Mosque in Jerusalem.
In late May Erdogan participated remotely in a commemoration of the conquest of Constantinople held at the former basilica. An imam recited a verse called the Conquest surah, celebrating a treaty between the people of Mecca and Medina.
The ceremony drew protests from Greece’s foreign ministry, saying it was an unacceptable breach of the world heritage site under UNESCO. For its part, the U.N. agency has said any changes to Hagia Sophia would require its approval.
U.S. leaders have also objected.
“The Hagia Sophia holds enormous spiritual and cultural significance to billions of believers of different faiths around the world,” U.S. Ambassador At Large for Religious Freedom Sam Brownback said on Twitter June 25. “We call on the government of Turkey to maintain it as a UNESCO World Heritage site and to maintain accessibility to all in its current status as a museum.”
Before the July 2 court hearing, U.S. Secretary of State Mike Pompeo asked Turkey “to continue to maintain Hagia Sophia as a museum, as an exemplar of its commitment to respect the faith traditions and diverse history that contributed to the Republic of Turkey.”
Numan Kurtulmus, deputy chairman of Erdogan’s political party, responded that the decision is a matter of national sovereignty.
“The sole decision-making authority about the status of Hagia Sophia ... belongs to Turkey. We do not need anyone’s advice or recommendation on our own affairs,” he said, according to Reuters.
While the Eastern Orthodox Christian world is currently riled over disputes surrounding the Patriarch of Constantinople’s recognition of the Ukrainian Orthodox Church as independent of Moscow, Russian Orthodox leaders have spoke out in favor of the status quo at Hagia Sophia.
“A threat against Hagia Sophia is a threat to all of Christian civilization, meaning our spirituality and history,” Patriarch Kirill of Moscow said July 6. He said the former basilica of Constantinople is “one of the biggest monuments of Christian civilization”
“What could happen to Hagia Sophia will cause deep pain among the Russian people,” said the Russian Orthodox patriarch.
Russian political leaders like Kremlin spokesman Dimitry Peskov have said Hagia Sophia is “ a beloved world masterpiece for tourists from all countries who visit Turkey, including for tourists from Russia.” In addition to its tourism value, it has “a very deep sacred spiritual value,” he said.
Armenian Patriarch of Constantinople Sahak II Mashalian, an Oriental Orthodox leader, has suggested making Hagia Sophia a site of worship for both Christians and Muslims.
Turkey’s population of 82 million is overwhelmingly Sunni Muslim. Non-Muslim minorities make up only 0.2%, and the Christian population is split among several Orthodox and Catholic Churches, as well as other groups.