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.
Note: Because of the urgency of the current situation in Armenia and Azerbaijan and the importance of providing reliable background information, the following essay is an exception toour typical length and op-ed format and includes an extensive excerpt from an academic journal article.
Since Sunday, September 27, Azerbaijan, with support from its Turkic big brother Turkey—two autocratic totalitarian states—has launched attacks on its neighboring countries, the Republics of Armenia and Artsakh—two fledgling democracies in the Caucasus. Neither Azerbaijan nor Turkey has shown regard for human life, let alone such niceties as historical truth, or, for that matter, international law. Artsakh (called Nagorno Karabakh in Soviet times) is part of the remaining territory of the Armenian highlands, after the Armenian people’s vast territorial losses following the 1915 Armenian Genocide. The current conflict is not only a fight for the survival of the Armenian people—75% of whom Ottoman Turkey eliminated in the 1915 Genocide—but an information war. It should not be that way.
In 2016, I received a call from our local FBI office. The agent notified me that my name and my home address were circulating on jihadi websites, along with those of certain U.S. military personnel, calling upon homegrown terrorists and ISIS supporters to harm us. It was unclear to the FBI agent why my name was circulating on these websites, as they appeared to be related to the crisis in Syria. I have not served in the U.S. military. I had zero involvement in the Syrian crisis, other than calling my U.S. representatives years earlier to warn them that Turkey was funding Syrian “rebels” who were aligned with al-Qaeda. What I was “guilty” of—I surmise—was writing articles about Turkey’s denial of the Armenian Genocide and the destruction of Armenian cultural heritage by Turkey and later Azerbaijan, fundraising for humanitarian efforts in Artsakh (Nagorno Karabakh), and my most recent trip to Artsakh as part of a fact-finding mission regarding several medieval Armenian monasteries that Azerbaijan (a majority Muslim population) was claiming as their own cultural heritage.
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.
Last month, the Court of Cassation in Turkey ruled that the historic and contested Sanasaryan Han will be the property of the Turkish state. Built in 1895, the Han (“Inn”) was bought by the foundation established by the philanthropist Mkrtich Sanasaryan to support the Sanasaryan College in the city of Erzurum in eastern Anatolia. It was put under the administration of the Armenian Patriarchate of Constantinople in 1920. In 1928, the Turkish State confiscated the building and maintained its revenue and rights until the Armenian Patriarchate of Turkey filed a lawsuit for its return with the Istanbul 13th Civil Court of First Instance in 2014. After a circuitous legal route, the Court of Cassation—the court of last instance for civil and criminal cases—ruled last February (2018) for the admissibility of the lawsuit and filed for the return of the title deed to the Armenian Patriarchate. Widely seen to be a major victory for the Armenian Patriarchate and the question of religious minority properties in the Republic of Turkey, it seemed the Armenian Patriarchate would assume the deed within a couple years. Last month, however, the same Court of Cassation ruled that the title deed will remain with the Turkish state. The lawyer in the case, Ali Elbeyoğlu, plans to appeal the case to the Constitutional Court.
The case of the Sanasaryan Han is just one case—albeit a very high-profile case—regarding the properties of religious minority groups in the Republic of Turkey. Continue reading →