On July 10, 2020, President of Turkey, Recep Tayyip Erdogan, announced that the Hagia Sophia museum, despite its status on the United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization (UNESCO) World Heritage List, would be converted into an active mosque. Just last week, according to Al Jazeera, a Turkish court “last week ruled that the conversion of the sixth-century Byzantine site into a museum in 1934 was unlawful.”
This announcement has been met with condemnation and mourn by multiple entities, including Pope Francis, UNESCO and the United States Commission on International Religious Freedom (USCIRF), which says:
“USCIRF condemns the unequivocal politicization of the Hagia Sophia, an architectural wonder that has for so long stood as a cherished testament to a complex history and rich diversity. Both Christians and Muslims alike ascribe great cultural and spiritual importance to the Hagia Sophia, whose universal value to humankind was reaffirmed with its inclusion in the United Nations Educational, Scientific, and Cultural Organization (UNESCO) World Heritage List in 1985.”
Despite the claims by president Erdogan that “like all our mosques, the doors of the Hagia Sophia will be wide open to locals and foreigners, Muslims and non-Muslims,” the decision appears to completely disregard the Hagia Sophia’s multi-religious and multicultural ancient history as a symbol for multiple religious communities.
The Hagia Sophia was originally constructed 1500 years ago in the year 537 to serve as a Greek Orthodox Christian church during the Byzantine Empire, and the church quickly became a religious and cultural treasure for Christians throughout the Middle East. For centuries, the Hagia Sophia encountered damage due to natural disasters, and it was constantly renovated and expanded throughout its time as a church. The Hagia Sophia remained an orthodox church for over 900 years until it was converted into a mosque in 1453 during the fall of Constantinople and rise of the Ottoman Empire. Similarly to its status as a religious symbol for Christians across the continent during its status as a church, Muslims also greatly respected the site while it was a mosque, as it was a center for worship.
After 1400 years combined of being an active worship site and religious symbol for multiple religious communities, Turkish president Kemal Ataturk converted the then-mosque into a museum, effectively secularizing the site, allowing the building to be a historical and religious symbol for both Christians and Muslims, and prohibiting use of the building for worship.
Since 2018, president Erdogan has been vocally supportive of converting the Hagia Sophia back into a mosque, much to the chagrin of Christians and to the celebration of Muslims- both communities feel that the Hagia Sophia ‘belongs’ to them; now, Christians across the world feel a sense of loss and helplessness as a symbol that was originally theirs has been, in a sense, confiscated from them and given to another religious community.
The Russian Orthodox Church has called this decision a “threat to the whole of Christian civilization,” The European Union deems it “regrettable,” and Pope Francis himself has stated “I think of Hagia Sophia, and I am very saddened.”
We, too, are saddened by this decision, which constitutes religious erasure of the Christians throughout the Middle East, and we call on the government of Turkey to reverse this decision and reinstate the Hagia Sophia as a museum to ensure that all individuals, regardless of religious affiliation, can celebrate the rich religious significance and historical importance of this monument as it symbolizes religious pluralism.