Turkey’s Erdogan promotes division with Hagia Sophia mosque decision

Turkey’s Erdogan promotes division with Hagia Sophia mosque decision

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People visit Hagia Sophia or Ayasofya, a UNESCO World Heritage Site, in Istanbul, Turkey, June 30, 2020. (Reuters)

In 638, Jerusalem was besieged by a Muslim army. Leading the defense was the Orthodox Patriarch Sophronios. The situation was hopeless: The city was going to fall. But Sophronios was not going to see it sacked. He sent an offer to the commander of the besieging army that he would surrender the city in person to Caliph Umar. 

Umar duly went to Jerusalem and received the surrender. As he entered the city, so the story goes, it was suggested to him that he pray in the Church of the Holy Sepulchre, which Christians believe is the site of Christ’s death, burial and resurrection. The caliph refused, saying that, if he were to pray there, those who came after him would turn the church into a mosque. Instead, going to the door of the church, he picked up a stone and threw it. He prayed where it fell and his mosque remains in that place to this day. 

More than 800 years later, Sultan Mehmed II of the Ottoman Empire captured Constantinople. He did not emulate his illustrious predecessor. The Cathedral of Hagia Sophia (Holy Wisdom), the seat of the Ecumenical Patriarch of Constantinople, the senior of the great bishops of the Eastern Orthodox Church, was immediately turned into a mosque. However, in 1935, the Hagia Sophia was turned into a museum on the orders of the first president of the Republic of Turkey, Mustafa Kemal Ataturk.

The Hagia Sophia was originally built on its current site in the 4th century and the current structure in the 6th century. So, in its near-1,700-year history, it has had three functions: 1,100 years as a place of Christian worship, 500 years as a place of Muslim worship, and almost 100 years as neither.

Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan thus had a choice: Emulate Caliph Umar or emulate Sultan Mehmed. He chose the wrong one.

The Hagia Sophia is not the only religious site in the world that is considered holy by two or more faiths. The Cathedral of Cordoba in Spain is a converted mosque (itself built on the site of an earlier church). Al-Haram Al Sharif in Jerusalem was the site of a Jewish Temple before its destruction by the Romans; it then served as a rubbish dump for some years under Pagan and then Christian rule, before hosting Al-Aqsa Mosque and the Dome of the Rock. During the Crusader period, it also hosted a church.

But the Hagia Sophia is unique in terms of its status since 1935: Neither a mosque nor a church, but a neutral site. The Eastern Orthodox Church, which has been battling a schism since 2018 between the Ecumenical Patriarch of Constantinople and the Patriarch of Moscow, has been united in its response. In recent weeks, the Patriarch Bartholomew I of Constantinople, Patriarch Kirill of Moscow and Patriarch Theophilos III of Jerusalem — three of the five most senior bishops in Eastern Orthodoxy — all called for the museum status of Hagia Sophia to be maintained. Pope Francis has expressed his grief at the change and the World Council of Churches has declared its concern.

What is notable about all these statements is not the upset that turning the Hagia Sophia into a mosque is causing. It is the unity of the Christian leaders in not asserting the building’s status as a church. Their objective is for Christians and Muslims to be able to go into the building with their own particular spiritual motivations and find solace there. They seek inclusivity, not the exclusivity of Erdogan’s decision. 

For the past few decades, the world has been rocked by the effects of religious conflict, driven by religious groups claiming exclusivity and requiring those who do not agree to submit to their rule or be destroyed. These groups have a view of a — perhaps largely imagined — glorious past, which they want to draw into the mundane present. 

Every period of world history in which any group has sought mastery over another on the basis of the superiority of their ideology or belief has ended badly. Human beings are not automata; we have diverse opinions and diverse beliefs. Convincing others of the rightness of one’s own view is a matter for argument and open debate, not the force of law or arms. Irredentism — seeking to recover a glorious past — is a recipe for conflict.

By instinct, I am a conservative. Like many others disturbed by rapid change in the world around me, I resist it. I do not believe that human society is in some great progress toward a utopian future; in fact, as far as I can see from history and the world around me, efforts to reach a utopian future usually lead to a hellish present. 

Erdogan had a choice: Emulate Caliph Umar or emulate Sultan Mehmed. He chose the wrong one.

Peter Welby

That said, conservatism should not look backwards. History only moves forward. Those seeking to recover a golden past and those militating for a glorious future are alike: They will destroy the world around them to achieve their aims. 

In turning the Hagia Sophia back into a mosque, Erdogan has put himself into this camp. The debate over the function of the building should have been left where it was, in 1935. Seeking to reverse the events of the past, whether at the Hagia Sophia, Cordoba or Jerusalem, will only lead to conflict.

Turkey has many problems to face, but a shortage of mosques in Istanbul is not one of them. Erdogan has allied himself with the forces of division and should reverse his decision.

  • Peter Welby is a consultant on religion and global affairs, specializing in the Arab world. Twitter: @pdcwelby
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