In a move that’s being called concerning, Turkey’s president said on Friday that Istanbul’s iconic Hagia Sophia, once Christendom’s grandest cathedral, will be converted into a Muslim mosque. President Recep Tayyip Erdogan made the announcement shortly after a Turkish court annulled a 1934 cabinet decree that established the sixth-century building as a museum.
Each year, millions of people visit the Hagia Sophia, a UNESCO World Heritage Site. Built in 537 by the Eastern Roman Emperor Justinian, the Byzantine cathedral became a mosque in 1453 after the Ottomans conquered Constantinople. The founder of modern-day Turkey, Mustafa Kemal Ataturk, converted the building into a museum as part of his secularization efforts.
Religious and Political Leaders React Swiftly
UNESCO, the cultural body of the United Nations, calls Erdogan’s announcement “regrettable”—especially because he provided no notice—and says it will be reviewing the site’s status. A U.S. State Department spokesperson calls the decision disappointing and urges Turkish officials to keep the Hagia Sophia accessible to all visitors.
The Russian Orthodox Church, which has strongly opposed calls for the building’s conversion into a mosque, says Erdogan ignored “the concern of millions of Christians.” Russian Patriarch Kirill says the decision is a “threat to the whole of Christian civilization.”
An official in Russia’s parliament says this “mistake” will bring nations “into collision.” Greece’s Culture Minister says it’s an “open provocation to the civilized world” and takes Turkey “back six centuries.”
During his weekly prayers yesterday, Pope Francis said he was “very saddened” by the news. The Palestinian group Hamas, meanwhile, says it’s “a proud moment for all Muslims.”
Doors Will Remain Open, Says Turkey’s President
Erdogan says the Hagia Sophia, “like all our mosques,” will remain “open to everyone—Muslim or non-Muslim” and “will keep on embracing everyone in a more sincere way.” Entrance fees are being eliminated, and the building’s ancient artwork will remain in place. Because images of people aren’t permitted in mosques, they’ll be covered with curtains during Muslim prayer times.
Politics likely played a role in Erdogan’s decision, with the nationalist leader appealing to his base and shoring up his legacy. Scholar Nicholas Danforth says, “As a museum, the Hagia Sophia symbolized the idea of there being common artistic and cultural values that transcended religion to unite humanity.” Converting it into a mosque, he adds, “is an all too appropriate symbol for the rise of right-wing nationalism.”
About 100,000 Christians live in Turkey, which ranks 36th for persecution on the Open Doors World Watch List, due to “increasing dictatorial power.” American pastor Andrew Brunson was recently detained for two years in Turkey, charged with “Christianization.”
Turkish Christian Ziya Meral tells the Washington Post that believers are shrinking in number and being ignored. “It is not about us, neither the agendas to convert it to a mosque nor loud reactions against it in Turkey or abroad,” Meral says of the Hagia Sophia. “If it was, the focus would have been on how we can protect the future of some 100,000 or so Christians left in the country, and the tragedy we mourn would have been why so many of our churches are empty and why in a few decades [Asia Minor’s] rich Christian heritage will not have much by way of living cultures and communities.”