The church of Hagia Sophia was the preeminent monument of Christian architecture and an active church for almost a millennium until the conquest of Constantinople in 1453, when the clergy and people were slaughtered as they celebrated their last Liturgy. Hagia Sophia was used as a mosque for Muslim prayers until 1934, when the new secular leadership of the Turkish state declared it a museum. Hagia Sophia was preserved as a tourist site, and no prayers of any kind were allowed. However, earlier this year, the Turkish government under the leadership of President Erdogan, restarted Muslim prayers. Hagia Sophia became a mosque again.
For the current president of Turkey and his supporters, the meaning of this event is clear: the ascendancy, supremacy, and inevitable victory of Islam. For Orthodox Christians—and for all Christians who are aware of it—the event is a source of anguish. These two meanings are clear and incompatible.
“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.
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.