A Jesuit expert on Islam has said that it is “hypocritical” to say that ‘Christianity has lost a church’ with the Hagia Sophia mosque reconversion.

– “What hurts about the fact that a museum is now becoming a place of prayer again?”

Fr. Felix Körner SJ, a professor of the theology of religions at the Pontifical Gregorian University and a member of the Vatican Commission for Religious Relations with Muslims, reflected in detail with Domradio July 14 on the “hurt” Christian leaders from Pope Francis to the Bishops of the EU to Orthodox Patriarchs have expressed over the decision of Turkish authorities to open for Muslim prayers again the 6th-century Byzantine basilica in Istanbul turned mosque turned secular State museum in 1935 under Turkish founding father Mustafa Kemal Atatürk.

“What hurts you when you think about the fact that a museum, which under Atatürk was used secularly only as a place to visit and no longer as a place of prayer, is now becoming a place of prayer again? That cannot hurt as a religious person. That can make you happy”, Körner reflected.

The German Jesuit acknowledged that the reconversion is not just about interfaith theology, but a moment for an unwanted “old memory” – the fall of Constantinople to the Ottoman Empire in 1453 – to come up again.

But “as Western Christians, we did not care about Byzantium when the Ottomans came closer and closer. In 1453 we lost for Christianity the city and with it Hagia Sophia. Of course this can hurt us”, Körner admitted.

– “Only a drama if it is now turned into a game of power”

That “old memory” of the Ottomon conquest aside, Körner said there was another motive to feel “hurt” by the Hagia Sophia reconversion: that diverse actors are playing “politics with a house of prayer”, something that in the Jesuit’s opinion is “sad”.

“I don’t see it as a drama that a museum is now becoming a house of prayer again. I think it is only a drama if it is now turned into a game of power, on the part of [Turkish president Recep Tayyip] Erdogan himself, for example”, Körner continued.

To de-escalate tensions, then, the Jesuit called on Christians “not [to] fall into the trap of over-dramatising” the reconversion, but instead to see it as “an opportunity to think again about what can become of a secularised museum, which had become stiff as a result, turned now into a house of prayer for all peoples”.

Körner’s argument that Hagia Sophia as a mosque will be “a house of prayer for all peoples” may seem counter-intuitive, but the Jesuit explained that all people, regardless of faith or nationality, will be permitted to enter the monument, and that much now without paying the former entrance fee.

“One can then also pray” while visiting the space, the expert recalled.

“I don’t know whether you have ever prayed in a mosque – at least I like it very much”, Körner told his interviewer.

“This really is then an opportunity for us to say: Well, we as believers can perceive and accept this place… as a spiritual place”, he added.

– A “spiritual impulse” for Christian worship and Christian-Muslim dialogue

Despite the fact that Christians may have ‘lost’ Hagia Sophia twice, then – once to the Ottomans and once again to Atatürk – Körner urged Christians to see the rededicated mosque as a “spiritual impulse and spiritual vehicle for our worship of God, either together with Muslims or individually”.

“If the Pope says that it hurts him, and if the bishops, including those from Orthodoxy, say that it hurts, then they must clearly say why it hurts them”, the expert also appealed. “Because they have a sad memory, because they do not want it to be politicised”, he added, answering his own question.

To smooth the waters over, Körner affirmed that Christians and Muslims should now draw up proposals for using the space together so as to avoid any impression of the reconversion being meant or being taken as a “territorial claim or a stab at Christianity”, both scenarios the expert described as “absurd”.

Istanbul’s Muslims could, for example, formally invite Christians to pray with them in Hagia Sophia, “just as… Muhammad himself invited Christians in Medina, according to tradition, to pray in his mosque there in the seventh century”, the Jesuit suggested.

Such interfaith prayer and dialogue events should be planned for Hagia Sophia so as to make the now repurposed mosque “a place of understanding and spiritual radiance for all”, Körner concluded.

More analysis of the Hagia Sophia mosque reconversion from Felix Körner:

Vatican advisor denies “Islamic aggression” behind Hagia Sophia mosque decision: “Istanbul is not Mecca”

More on Novena on the debate over the monument:

Cardinal Schönborn “dreams” of Hagia Sophia becoming “centre for the encounter of religions”

Serbian Patriarch appeals for joint Muslim-Christian worship in Hagia Sophia in sign of “historical symbiosis, tolerance and trust”

17/6: Armenian Patriarch suggests compromise for Hagia Sophia: Christian and Muslim prayer in “covenant of cross and crescent”


PhD in ancient Jewish/Christian history and philosophy. University ethics lecturer with 4 years' experience in religion journalism.