The leader of the world’s Orthodox Christians, Ecumenical Patriarch Bartholomew I of Constantinople (Istanbul), recently expressed his concern over Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan’s plans to convert the Hagia Sophia basilica into a mosque.
The patriarch told the Washington Post: “What can I say as a Christian clergyman and the Greek patriarch in Istanbul? Instead of uniting, a 1,500-year-old heritage is dividing us. I am saddened and shaken”.
The Hagia Sophia basilica was once the centre of eastern Christianity, but was converted into a mosque with the Ottoman conquest just over 500 years ago.
When the Ottoman Empire dissolved into modern day Turkey, the basilica-mosque was changed into a museum. Legally, it is supposed to remain as a museum. However, whenever the ruling AK Party is in need of increased popular support, they promise to convert the church back into a mosque. Rhetoric of this nature has increased in recent days and it is expected that next week Turkish courts will rule in favor of this conversion.
While many fear a continued decrease in the Christian population in Turkey – following on from the genocide, discrimination and property confiscations of the twentieth century – Patriarch Bartholomew expressed faith that the Greek Christians at least in the country will remain strong.
“We survived for 17 centuries and we will stay here forever, as God wants us to”, the Patriarch declared.
Greek Orthodox Church warns any change to status “will provoke strong protest and harm Turkey”
Though the Armenian Patriarch of Istanbul has proposed a compromise solution for Hagia Sophia – suggested both Muslims and Christians could be officially allowed to pray in the museum in a interfaith “covenant of cross and crescent” – the overwhelming majority of Christians in the region are against any change to the museum’s neutral status.
Indeed, a group of Ukrainian Christians said the monument’s neutral status is the “key to friendship, respect and mutual understanding… between the two greatest civilizations of the world, the Muslim one and the Christian one”, while the Russian Orthodox Church has also called on Turkey to continue to ensure “open access to everyone” at the risk of “violat[ing] fragile inter-confessional balances”.
For its part, the Greek Orthodox Church’s governing synod warned “any change” to Hagia Sophia – “a masterpiece of architectural genius, globally renowned as one of the preeminent monuments of Christian civilization” – “will provoke strong protest and frustration among Christians worldwide, as well as harming Turkey itself”.
In the meantime though, Turkey’s Catholic Bishops are staying out of the dispute, recalling in a statement to the Catholic News Service that as Catholics “we are a church deprived of juridical status, so we cannot give any advice on this country’s internal questions”.
“Although we would wish Hagia Sophia to retain its character as a museum, it isn’t for us to intervene or even give our opinion on a decision which solely concerns the Republic of Turkey”, the Turkish Catholic Bishops stated.
(With information from International Christian Concern)