Cardinal Christoph Schönborn has said he dreams of Hagia Sophia becoming a “centre for the encounter of religions”.

– “It would be a victory and a blessing for all”

Schönborn, the Archbishop of Vienna, set out his vision for Istanbul’s famous basilica-mosque-museum turned mosque again in a column July 17 in the Heute newspaper.

“So it is once again a mosque, the once-largest church in Christendom, the incomparable jewel in the heart of Istanbul”, the cardinal wrote, reflecting on the July 10 decisions of the Turkish Council of State and President Recep Tayyip Erdogan to reopen the 6th-century Byzantine basilica to Muslim prayers from July 24.

Schönborn recalled that Hagia Sophia was the main church of the Eastern Roman Empire until 1453, when the Ottoman Empire conquered Constantinople and turned it into a mosque. That was the use the house of worship continued to have until 1934, when then-Turkish president Mustafa Kemal Atatürk set in motion a plan to turn it into a secular museum.

The cardinal reminded his readers that the Turkish authorities’ push to overturn Atatürk’s decision affected even Pope Francis, who admitted he was “very saddened” by the basilica’s reconversion into a mosque.

The fate of Hagia Sophia, for the cardinal, is yet another reminder that “politics and religion have always argued and fought for places of worship”. From the great mosque in Córdoba, in Spain – a 7th-century Visigoth church-cum-mosque now converted into a Catholic cathedral – to the Leopoldskirche in Vienna’s Leopoldstadt district – built on the site of a synagogue after the expulsion of the Jews in 1670 – and “the list can unfortunately be extended”, Schönborn lamented.

But the cardinal said there is another way. “It would be a dream if Hagia Sophia became a centre for the encounter of religions. It would be a victory and a blessing for all”, he appealed.

Schönborn’s plea for Hagia Sophia to become an interfaith centre found backing from President of the Islamic Community of Austria (IGGÖ), Ümit Vural, who in a commentary in the Der Standard newspaper July 17 appealed for the “common use” of the monument as a place of prayer and as a sign of the rapprochement of Christianity and Islam.

Plans to turn the building into a mosque alone would “not do justice to the history of Hagia Sophia”, lamented Vural, who added that “this house of God was previously both: church and mosque. It should be possible to use it together in the sense of the growing together of our cultural circles, in order to avoid exclusion and conflicts”.

– Puts down to “religious freedom” growing number of Austrian Catholics leaving the Church, plays down talk of a schism

In addition to the repurposing of Hagia Sophia, Cardinal Schönborn also spoke out this week on the growing number of people “silently turn[ing] their backs on the Church” in Austria, as CNA reported.

In an interview with Church newspapers, the cardinal lamented the increasing number of the faithful leaving Catholicism – to the tune of 67,583 people in 2019, up 14.9% on the 58,807 people who did so in 2018 – but said it was the prerogative of citizens to do so.

“That is part of religious freedom”, Schönborn explained. “We are not a compulsory community. This is the freedom that God has given us”.

Elsewhere in the conversation, the cardinal also addressed tensions in the Church, which he said are “normal because people have different lifestyles, different basic cultural and religious habits”.

But despite the conflicts, Schönborn played down any possibility of a schism, saying that for half a century he had been hearing talk of a split in the Church but that “did not come because the forces of unity are stronger”.

More on Novena on the Hagia Sophia mosque controversy:

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

EU Bishops of COMECE label Hagia Sophia mosque decision “a blow to interreligious dialogue”

Analysis: Could the US and Western Europe use the Hagia Sophia reconversion to create a new front against Turkey?

Turkish president says Hagia Sophia mosque reconversion “fulfills will of 83 million citizens”, corrects museum “mistake”

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