Around midday local time on Friday, 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?
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.
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.