Around midday local time on July 24th, the first Muslim Friday prayer service in over eighty years was conducted in Hagia Sophia, its status recently changed from a museum to a mosque. A key part of weekly Muslim congregational worship is the preaching of a sermon. In this case, the sermon was delivered by Prof. Dr. Ali Erbaş, the head of the Turkish Directorate of Religious Affairs (the government ministry that licenses and oversees religious institutions and personnel in Turkey). Some 12 hours later, in the evening of the same day at the Greek Orthodox Archdiocesan Cathedral of the Holy Trinity in New York, Archbishop Elpidophoros led an Akathist service as part of a day of mourning for the change in Hagia Sophia’s status. At the end of the Akathist, Archbishop Elpidophoros also delivered a sermon.
The contrast between the texts of these sermons is remarkable. Comparing these two documents brings into focus the actual basis of the conflict over Hagia Sophia. One the one hand, Erbaş’s sermon argues for a religious politics of patronage and dominion. On the other, Elpidophoros’ sermon argues for a religious politics of pluralism and diversity. The conflict over Hagia Sophia is squarely between these visions of religion itself, not between Christianity and Islam per se. It reveals a fundamental dilemma faced by Orthodox Christians and Muslims alike: what kinds of religious politics do we choose to cultivate? Is human dominion or human diversity where we identify the traces of God’s image and will in this world?
In 2019, I had the pleasure of immersing myself in the history of both Christianity and Islam, where they are woven together in the beautiful and magnificent architecture of the Hagia Sophia.
During my trip, numerous Christian icons, which were plastered over during the Ottoman Empire, were being uncovered and restored, bringing back to life its true Christian history. I remember thinking to myself, Turkey should be proud of this heritage and of its efforts to preserve and to further uncover the Christian heritage of this building. Only a country and leader secure in its identity would invest in such an effort.
It was, therefore, very disappointing to read about the effort underway to convert the Church commissioned by the emperor Justinian I in 537—turned mosque by Mehmed II in 1453, turned museum in 1934 by Turkish President Kemal Atatürk—back to a mosque by President Recep Tayyip Erdogan.
Recently I made up my mind to visit Eastern Catholic parishes. Though canonically Roman Catholic, I have long known my theological portion to fall with Origen and his heirs. But for reasons now dark to my gaze my theological predilections did not translate to liturgical ones. Until anyhow they did—not least due to the compelling (if inadvertent) advertising campaign for the Eastern Catholic Churches pitched by Adam A.J. DeVille’s Everything Hidden Shall Be Revealed (Angelico Press, 2019). Resolved, I flick through some Robert Taft books on the history of the Divine Liturgy and tell my children (7, 5, 1) to steel themselves for “a long Church.”
I visit the Melkite parish first. Its white brick climbs skyward, its motion stymied only by a golden dome outfitted with a Greek cross. No Latin parish, this. Perfect.
When I first read paragraph 56 ofFor the Life of the World: Toward A Social Ethos of the Orthodox Church, I immediately had the sense that it represented a major step forward in Muslim-Orthodox relations. I think it is important to call special attention to this part of the text, because this paragraph is perhaps the most effective discussion of Islam I have encountered in a modern Orthodox ecclesiastical document. This paragraph is an excellent guide for Orthodox Christians when thinking about Islam because it describes Islam in ways that reflect how Muslims themselves understand their faith. At the same time, it also remains true to Orthodox self-understanding by accurately identifying where these two faiths differ from each other.