There can be no doubt that Hagia Sophia evokes strong sentiments. For Orthodox Christians, the Greeks in particular, the “Great Church of the Divine Wisdom of God” was the seat of the Ecumenical Patriarch, the greatest cathedral in the Christian world for almost a thousand years, the spiritual heart of the Byzantine Empire. When Constantinople fell in 1453, Mehmet the Conqueror made it a mosque. For Turks (and I stress Turks, not Muslims) who have now turned it back into a mosque, it has become once again the symbol of the conquest of Constantinople and victory over Byzantium, but also the victory of Islam over Christianity.
Hagia Sophia embodies the complexity of Turkish and European history, and of Christian and Islamic traditions. Recognizing this, and driven by his efforts to secularize Turkey, in 1935 Mustafa Kemal Atatürk turned it into a museum and it subsequently became a UNESCO World Heritage Site. It thus became a “place of encounter,” inspiring people of all nations and faiths, an expression of Turkey’s desire to leave behind the conflicts of the past.
President Erdoğan’s decision to turn Hagia Sophia back into a functioning mosque has been analysed on many fronts—as him seeking popularity, particularly among conservative and religious citizens; as distracting attention from an ailing economy; as yet another provocative act against the Greeks; as seeking to restore “the Ottoman Empire,” at least as an idea, etc. Whether Turkish foreign policy is aggressive and worrisome is open to discussion, but ultimately by doing this, Erdoğan has reversed Hagia Sophia as a positive sign of Turkey’s openness and changed it into a sign of exclusion and division. This further deepens and entrenches the polarization of civilizations and the perceived conflict between the Western and Islamic worlds. I say “Western” because the West can no longer be characterised as “Christian,” but rather as secular.
Converting Hagia Sophia back into a mosque will inevitably create mistrust and animosity. This undermines all efforts to bring people of different faiths together in dialogue and cooperation. It undermines the need for mutual respect and threatens the aim of harmonious coexistence. Consequently, Erdoğan’s decision has been condemned by both religious and political leaders around the world.
Will this make a difference? I doubt it. So, where does that leave us now?
Unlike other religions whose holy shrines are literally “bound” to or associated with a particular site, we Orthodox Christians do not identify the Church with a specific building or place, but rather with “wherever two or three are gathered together” to celebrate the Eucharist. As Father Paul Jannakos has commented, “No longer must we journey to a place on a map to encounter the One True God. Instead we do the opposite: we stay put and allow the Lord to come to us.” Father Jannakos also gives the illustration of St. Gregory of Nyssa telling pilgrims going to Jerusalem to see the Holy Sepulchre: “You don’t need to go, because the Divine Liturgy is the true ‘Holy of Holies.'”
While I too am deeply grieved at the Great Church’s change of status, I am also reminded that any place in which the Eucharist is celebrated is a holy place, and that every church is the House of God and His Divine Wisdom. But, as Archbishop Lazar (Puhalo) points out, “unless it is populated by true believers whose hearts and consciences are oriented toward the will of God, it is a house where no one is at home.”
That is the challenge with which Hagia Sophia leaves us .
✠ Metropolitan Petros of Accra
Also see We Knew Not Whether We Were in Heaven or on Earth and Hagia Sophia: Some Personal Reflections.
Metropolitan Petros (Parginos) is the ruling hierarch for the Metropolis of Accra, Ghana in the Greek Orthodox Patriarchate of Alexandria and All Africa, and the founder/administrator of St. Mark’s Academy in Johannesburg, South Africa. He holds a PhD from the University of the North West focusing on Orthodox-Catholic dialogue. His Eminence has written previously for Orthodoxy in Dialogue.