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.
Christian leaders and secular governments around the world have condemned, with good reason, the recent decision of a Turkish court to reconvert Hagia Sophia into a mosque. Indeed, this ruling is just the latest step in a century-long effort by the Turkish government to erase both the history and presence of Christianity in Turkey. And while President Erdogan’s advocacy for this change is little more than crude pandering to conservative Islamists in the wake of growing criticism, the ruling forces a series of hard questions for the advocates of persecuted Christian minorities in the region who use the framework of “religious freedom.”
For starters, there is the question of whether or not the forced transformation of Hagia Sophia from a mosque into a museum in 1935 was, objectively speaking, the just outcome of an aspiring democratic society. It is no secret that Kemal Ataturk, the engineer of the modern Turkish state, pursued this change as part of a wide-ranging plan to break from the historic authority of Islam in Ottoman society and to advance his vision for a future Turkey that would be radically secular.
I categorically refuse to pay an entrance fee for a church, out of principle. When I was in Bratislava, and the Catholic cathedral charged a very small fee, I did not enter. When I returned to the wonderful Cathedral Church in Trogir, Croatia, two years ago, it was selling entrance tickets—so I relied on my memories. I once had the privilege of a private tour to the Sistine Chapel; I would not have paid to see it. In my view, there is a fundamental difference between a house of prayer which must be open to everybody, and a museum which can charge entrance fees.
However, the boundaries between churches and museums are frequently blurry. One does not pay to enter St. Peter’s Cathedral in Rome, but the mere fact that they have to have a person standing next to the entrance to bar visitors with dogs, ice cream cones, shorts, or bathing attire shows that many people do not regard it as a place for prayer, meditation, and adoration of God, but rather as a must-see during their visit to Rome. In St. Petersburg, St. Isaac’s Cathedral was supposed to be transferred to the Russian Orthodox Church in 2017, but public outcry kept it a museum, with only occasional services. Now, a woman in trousers and her head uncovered can enter, walk around, and look closely at the paintings on the iconostasis—unless she enters the side nave dedicated to church use. Then, most likely an elderly woman will come and reproach her for not being properly dressed. I like the solution I saw in Krakow, Poland: the back part of St. Mary’s Basilica can be entered for prayer free of charge; tourists who want a better look at the famous altar woodwork must pay at another entrance.
The United States Commission on International Religious Freedom (USCIRF) recently released its 2020 Annual Report. As Christian persecution intensifies across the globe, the report provides much needed data and findings from high-persecution regions, such as the Middle East. Importantly, it also recommends the worst violators of religious freedom at the governmental level to the Department of State for Countries of Particular Concern (CPC) status, which can trigger a number of actions (including sanctions). USCIRF also recommends countries with religious freedom violations, but not quite at the CPC level, for Special Watch List (SWL) status. Middle Eastern Christians stand to benefit greatly from this report’s analysis and recommendations, and it is imperative that the White House and Congress prioritize the USCIRF report as they seek to advance the principle of international religious freedom.