Update 12/7/20 15:00 CEST:

The Pope broke his silence Sunday on the fate of Hagia Sophia, declaring at the Angelus that he was “very saddened” by its reconversion into a mosque.

Original post 11/7/20 9:00 CEST:

Why is Pope Francis keeping quiet on the Hagia Sophia mosque conversion?

That’s the question being asked above all by Orthodox Christians after Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan signed a decree Friday handing control of the 6th-century basilica turned mosque turned neutral museum in 1935 over to the Diyanet, the Turkish Directorate of Religious Affairs.

That’s with the plan of opening it for Muslim prayers as early as July 24, save an appeal of a Turkish Council of State ruling also on Friday.

– Out of respect for Turkey’s sovereignty?

In the first place, though, why should the pontiff have intervened in another country’s sovereign affairs?

Even if he never mentioned the Pope by name, this was the thinking of President Erdoğan, who was angrily fending off Greece, Russia and all other critics of the Hagia Sophia conversion as recently as July 3, when he stated: “Criticising… a country through places of worship means turning your back on the truth”.

“The charges against us, against Hagia Sophia, are a direct attack on our sovereign rights”, the Turkish President claimed.

Another group which was determined – or forced – to respect Turkey’s right to decide for itself on the Hagia Sophia conversion was the country’s Catholic bishops, who explained June 18 that “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 said.

Others, however, saw and see the Hagia Sophia issue in a very different light, arguing that the fate of the ancient basilica turned-museum turned-mosque concerns groups as nebulous as “Christian civilisation” or “humanity” as a whole.

– Doesn’t Francis care about “Christian civilisation”?

The head of the Russian Orthodox Church, Patriarch Kirill of Moscow, is one of the stakeholders who sees the change to the status of Hagia Sophia as nothing less than an attack on Christianity.

On July 6, Kirill said in a statement: “I hope for the Turkish state leadership’s good sense. The preservation of the current neutral status of Hagia Sophia, one of the greatest masterpieces of Christian culture, a cathedral that millions of Christians around the world see as a symbol, would serve to further develop relations between the peoples of Russia and Turkey and strengthen interreligious peace and accord”.

Continued the Russian Orthodox head, referring to the Grand Prince of Kiev who in the tenth century sent emissaries to investigate the religions of neighbouring regions: “Prince Vladimir’s envoys stepped across the threshold of this church and were captivated by its heavenly beauty. Having heard their story, St. Vladimir received baptism and baptised Rus’, which followed him into a new spiritual and historical dimension – Christian civilisation”.

“Many generations conveyed to us admiration for achievements of this civilisation, with us now being its part. And Hagia Sophia has always been one of its devoutly venerated symbols. The image of this church has become deeply ingrained in our culture and history, having given strength and inspiration to our architects of the past in Kiev, Novgorod, Polotsk – in all the major centers of the spiritual formation of Early Rus'”, Kirill went on.

The Patriarch explained that despite the history of tensions between Rus’ and Constantinople, “with bitterness and indignation the Russian people responded in the past and respond now to any attempt to degrade or trample upon the millennium-old spiritual heritage of the Church of Constantinople”.

“A threat to Hagia Sophia is a threat to the entire Christian civilisation and, therefore, to our spirituality and history. To this day Hagia Sophia remains a great Christian shrine for every Russian Orthodox believer”, Kirill concluded.

– What about “universal civilisation”?

Earlier, at the end of June, Ecumenical Patriarch Bartholomew mounted a similar defence of the neutral status of Hagia Sophia, but with an important difference. The basilica-mosque-museum, for the primus inter pares of the world’s Orthodox Christians, was not just a monument of “Christian civilisation” but “one of the most significant classic monuments of the universal civilisation” as well (emphasis mine).

“‘Classic’ is that which always transcends the boundaries of the people and the time of its creation and that which does not belong only to its possessor, but to the whole humanity”, Bartholomew explained.

The Ecumenical Patriarch went on: “In this sense, the Turkish people has the great responsibility and the highest honor to give prominence to the universality of this exquisite monument”.

“As museum, Hagia Sophia can function as place and symbol of encounter, dialogue and peaceful coexistence of peoples and cultures, mutual understanding and solidarity between Christianity and Islam, which is extremely vital and beneficial for the contemporary world”, Bartholomew said.

“Shouldn’t we also turn toward the common principles, toward the ideals that unite the youth of both religions, an initiative that would safeguard a better future for mankind, instead of highlighting and bringing back to the forefront issues that cause divisions and tensions?”, the Ecumenical Patriarch also asked with respect to the future of Hagia Sophia.

“The conversion of Hagia Sophia into a mosque will disappoint millions of Christians around the world, and Hagia Sophia, which, due to its sacredness, is a vital center where East is embraced with the West, will fracture these two worlds, more so at a time when the afflicted and suffered mankind, due to the deadly pandemic of the new coronavirus, is in need of unity and common orientation”, Bartholomew argued.

– To protest: “A needless hallowing of our own culture”? “More fanaticism than true evangelizing zeal”?

Framing, then, the concerns about preserving the museum status of Hagia Sophia as concerns about preserving either “Christian” or “universal” civilisation it is easier to see why Pope Francis didn’t protest against the Turkish plans for the basilica-mosque.

Simply put, “Christian civilisation” for Francis is not a matter of the beauty, or otherwise, of churches as buildings, as Patriarch Kirill seemed to argue. Indeed, the turn of phrase “Christian civilisation” is not even in Francis’ lexicon.

The dramatic announcement the pontiff made in his Christmas greetings last year to members of the Roman Curia – “Brothers and sisters, Christendom no longer exists!” – he had already laid the groundwork for at least as early as Evangelii gaudium in 2013.

In that apostolic exhortation, Francis warned:

“We would not do justice to the logic of the incarnation if we thought of Christianity as monocultural and monotonous. While it is true that some cultures have been closely associated with the preaching of the Gospel and the development of Christian thought, the revealed message is not identified with any of them; its content is transcultural.

Hence in the evangelisation of new cultures, or cultures which have not received the Christian message, it is not essential to impose a specific cultural form, no matter how beautiful or ancient it may be, together with the Gospel.

The message that we proclaim always has a certain cultural dress, but we in the Church can sometimes fall into a needless hallowing of our own culture, and thus show more fanaticism than true evangelizing zeal”.

– Universal values manifested in action, not places and symbols

What, then, of Patriarch Bartholomew’s argument that preserving Hagia Sophia as a museum is a matter of preserving “universal” civilisation? Why hasn’t Pope Francis apparently bought that?

The difficulty of Bartholomew’s argument for Francis’ thought is that while the Pope would certainly have no problem with the Patriarch’s universal values of “encounter, dialogue and peaceful coexistence of peoples and cultures” – and would agree that “mutual understanding and solidarity between Christianity and Islam… is extremely vital and beneficial for the contemporary world” – he would dispute the Patriarch’s notion that those values are the kinds of commodities to be enshrined in places and symbols, whether those of Hagia Sophia or any others.

More than places and symbols, “universal civilisation” for Pope Francis is a matter of action.

This is the thrust of the Catholic-Muslim landmark Document on Human Fraternity the Pope signed with the Grand Imam of Al-Azhar in Egypt, Ahmad Al-Tayyeb, in Abu Dhabi in 2019, which pledged Muslims and Christians to “the adoption of a culture of dialogue as the path; mutual cooperation as the code of conduct; reciprocal understanding as the method and standard”.

But the still-under-construction nature of “universal civilisation” is a message Pope Francis also delivered in Turkey itself on his 2014 apostolic visit.

In a meeting with President Erdoğan, Prime Minister Ahmet Davutoğlu and other civil authorities, the first words the pontiff pronounced were:

“I am pleased to visit your country so rich in natural beauty and history, and filled with vestiges of ancient civilizations. It is a natural bridge between two continents and diverse cultures… It is now a place of devotion for innumerable pilgrims from all over the world, not only for Christians, but also for Muslims.

“Yet, the reasons why Turkey is held with such regard and appreciation are not only linked to its past and ancient monuments, but also have to do with the vitality of its present, the hard work and generosity of its people, and its role in the concert of nations”.

– Maintaining perspective

Granted, the question of the painful past of Hagia Sophia is a sore spot for the Orthodox, media linked to which accused Pope Francis – just before the news of the mosque conversion decision came to light – of having kept a “sad silence” on the fate of the basilica-museum.

“This is the second time in the history of Hagia Sophia that a global appeal has been made for its protection, and unfortunately the elder Rome prefers not to get involved”, Orthodox news site Ortodoxia.info lamented.

“As it did in 1453, when, despite Byzantine appeals for help, the army never arrived from the West, allowing Mehmed II to eventually enter the city and, of course, to turn Hagia Sophia into a mosque… Today unfortunately history repeats itself”.

Though they were modest, reinforcements to repel the Ottomans from Constantinople did arrive from the West, and the assertion that more help was not forthcoming for the Byzantines was due to Rome preferring “not to get involved” in the siege is debatable.

But history aside, it would seem that the mere conversion of Hagia Sophia into a mosque is not, for Pope Francis, a tragedy either of Christian or of universal civilisation.

It remains to be seen whether the conversion will even come to fruition, given that UNESCO has already protested the move and has insisted that, as Hagia Sophia is a World Heritage site, it too has a say in its future.

Another matter entirely, as well, will be the political use the new mosque is put, since Pope Francis has repeatedly stated his conviction that the political instrumentalisation of religion is a travesty.

Erdoğan’s detractors have been claiming for months that the Hagia Sophia conversion was designedo nly to appease Turkish Islamists and to distract the public from the President’s failures in containing the coronavirus pandemic, the faltering economy and the rising body count of Turkish soldiers during operations in Syria and Libya.

The Turkish President also organised a televised reading from the Quran in Hagia Sophia on May 29 this year to coincide with the 567th anniversary of the fall of Constantinople: an event that produced a strong reaction from Greece, which accused Turkey, with that reading, of having proffered “an insult to the international community”.

But political messages from Hagia Sophia will have to be judged on their merits, or lack of them, in the future.

In the meantime, it is important to keep the conversion of the monument into a mosque in perspective, and to remember, with Pope Francis, that the preservation of Christian and universal civilisation is about more than just the preservation of the status of a building.

Novena’s full coverage of the controversy over Hagia Sophia:

Turkish Council of State gives green light to conversion of Hagia Sophia into mosque

Ecumenical Patriarch warns conversion of Hagia Sophia into mosque “will disappoint millions of Christians”, “fracture” East and West (video)

Ecumenical Patriarch “saddened and shaken” by Turkish plans to turn Istanbul’s Hagia Sophia into mosque

Ukrainian Christians weigh in on Hagia Sophia in Istanbul, say “neutral status” of monument “key to friendship” between religions

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

Turkey: plan to reopen ancient basilica of Hagia Sophia to Muslim worship sparks geopolitical firestorm


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