This essay is published here on the occasion of the first prayers following Hagia Sophia’s reversion to a mosque, July 24, 2020.
It was spring 1964—a difficult year for the Orthodox Greek brothers of Constantinople, because of the well-known anti-Greek acts of the Turks, due to Cyprus. I was in the Theological Academy of Chalke (whose operation unfortunately has since been forbidden by the Turks). Great Lent had just started. In the Holy Trinity Monastery of Chalke, cantor Stanitsas chanted with his students: “Open for me the gates of repentance, O Life-Giver.” It was then that I experienced and understood Orthodox Byzantium: with all its grandeur it humbly repents in front of the Living and True God, as simply as washing in the morning or eating our daily bread.
I set out with a colleague and friend, a student of Theology in Chalke, to visit and worship at the “Aya Sophia,” as people called it in my country without knowing what it meant. For me it was the Great Church then. I used to hear about it, and it was something like a dream. When we entered the Hagia Sophia, I remembered St. Symeon the New Theologian: “If you have heard from someone about a city, its squares and its streets, the buildings and the rest of its beauty, and if you ever find yourself in this city, even if you recognize from what you have heard the streets and the city plan, you are still not sure it is the one you have heard so much about, until he himself tells you that this is the city he was talking about.” Of course, St. Symeon used this example to discuss the revelation of the Lord Himself to him and the confirmation of a true epiphany to him by his spiritual father, Symeon the Pious. When I entered the Hagia Sophia, I saw and realized that this is God’s Holy Wisdom. I was a hieromonk, but forced to be without a cassock, because it is forbidden in the city.
“Secular” is a tricky word. Most associate it with “no religion,” “absence of religion,” or “decline of religion.” At one time, it was pretty much the consensus in the Western world that with increased modernization, which usually meant technological and scientific advancement, religion would no longer really be needed and would simply fade away. This is one of the many examples of how irony drives history, as a consensus held by Western intelligentsia over the post two centuries—and with enormous arrogance—has proven manifestly false. Religion is not going away; it never went anywhere.
That tragic irony is on full display in Russia and Turkey. As most of the media, regional experts, and government officials pay attention to Turkey’s military provocations in the eastern Mediterranean or Russia’s influence in Syria—as they should—no one seems to be noticing a remarkable parallelism that has emerged between the two countries, and it has to do with religion. In both countries, the religion-hating kind of secularism took root almost at the same time: for Russia in 1917 under Lenin and for Turkey in 1923 under Ataturk. For decades, the world witnessed not simply the laïcité of France, but the active oppression and repression of religion, which lead to a cultural and political cleansing of religious influence in Russia and Turkey. The cultural cleansing is evident in the fact that to be Russian or Turkish was absolutely severed from any religious identity. And while the majority religions—Orthodox Christianity and Islam—both suffered under these secularist regimes, religious minorities had it just as bad, if not worst. In Turkey, alone, Orthodox Christianity in Constantinople went from over 100,000 adherents just after World War II to under 2,000 today.
As of 4 July 2020, the amendment to the Russian Constitution—first proposed by President Vladimir Putin in January, smoothly approved by the State Duma and Constitutional Court in March, and confirmed in a nationwide referendum with 78,56 per cent of votes—has taken effect. As widely reported, the main purpose of the amendment was to secure Putin the possibility of two more terms in office. But what significance does the constitutional amendment of 2020 have for the Russian Orthodox Church?
There are four places in the amended constitution which are the result of successful lobbying by the Moscow Patriarchate.
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.