A Vatican advisor has denied that “Islamic aggression” is behind Turkey’s decision to reconvert Hagia Sophia into a mosque, recalling that “Istanbul is not Mecca”.

– President Erdogan’s decision more to be read in domestic key

Consultor to the Vatican Commission for Religious Relations with Muslims Fr. Felix Körner SJ made the remarks July 13 in an interview with Domradio, in which he admitted that it was “annoying” that a place of worship such was for 1400 years Istanbul’s famous basilica-mosque had been turned into a “political provocation”.

However, the professor of the theology of religions at the Pontifical Gregorian University in Rome cautioned against putting down to “Islamic aggression” the decision of the Turkish Council of State, that nation’s highest administrative court, to overturn the neutral museum status Hagia Sophia has enjoyed since 1935 and allow the monument to open again for Muslim prayers.

The decision to re-Islamise Hagia Sophia had more to do with the domestic political positioning of Turkish president Recep Tayyip Erdogan, Körner said.

Erdogan – who for months has been playing to Islamic nationalists and desperately trying to draw attention away from his failures in the economy, the coronavirus outbreak and the wars in Syria and Libya – quickly signed the decree Friday formalising the Council of State’s ruling just hours after it came down.

– Mosques have also been converted into churches, and moreover, at least there will be prayers again in Hagia Sophia

Along with putting the decision on the future of Hagia Sophia down to Erdogan’s domestic political campaigning, Körner also recalled that just as, with the reconversion what was once a church is now a mosque, so there are many former mosques around Europe now converted into churches.

The Jesuit gave the example of the Mosque-Cathedral (Mezquita) in Córdoba, in Spain, where an architecturally-significant mosque was converted into “a Gothic cathedral of mediocre artistic quality”.

Not only that, but Körner also suggested believers “should actually rejoice first” that Hagia Sophia will once again be used for prayers after 85 years as a secular museum.

The expert also pointed out that non-Muslims will still be allowed to enter the now mosque, as per the assurance of the Turkish authorities. “Istanbul is not Mecca. Non-Muslims are allowed to enter the city and its shrines”, Körner recalled.

– Despite the lamentable “rhetoric of rivalry”, most Muslims in Turkey regard Christianity as a “sister religion”

For the member of one of the Vatican’s key interfaith dialogue bodies, the real tragedy around the reconversion of Hagia Sophia is the “rhetoric of rivalry” that has sprung up on its account between Christians and Muslims, whereby worship is “abused in order to inflate antagonisms”.

One could “be sad” about the ancient basilica-mosque now changing hands and use once again – and about Christianity “losing a church” – but conversions and reconversions of temples have been a constant throughout history, Körner recalled.

As for the future, now, for the Christian minorities in Turkey, the Jesuit said these are “no worse off than religious minorities in most so-called Christian countries”, and if anything is causing unrest after the Hagia Sophia ruling it is not Christians but “the social call for a different policy”.

Moreover, most Muslims in Turkey see Christianity “not as an opponent, but as a partner in dialogue, as a sister religion”, and many see through “the instrumentalisation of religious questions for political purposes”, Körner added.

– Christian anger still seething

The Vatican advisor’s call to see the Hagia Sophia reconversion in perspective aside, anger over last week’s decision is still seething in the Christian world.

Orthodox Archbishop Ieronymos of Athens and All Greece accused Erdogan Sunday of turning religion “into an instrument for achieving party, geopolitical, and geostrategic goals”, and of proffering “provocation and insults” to the Orthodox world.

‘Foreign Minister’ of the Russian Orthodox Church Metropolitan Hilarion, meanwhile, said the Hagia Sophia reconversion is a “slap in the face to all Christianity”.

The Middle East Council of Churches, too, called the reconversion a “violation of religious freedom and coexistence”. That sentiment was shared by Chaldean Patriarch Cardinal Louis Raphael Sako, who called the reconversion a “sad and painful… decision [that] goes against interfaith tolerance” and warned Erdogan that it is “serious and unbecoming to politicise religion for one’s own ends”.

Novena’s full coverage of the Hagia Sophia reconversion:

Analysis: What prompted Turkish president Erdogan to reconvert Hagia Sophia into a mosque?

World Council of Churches accuses Turkish president of making Hagia Sophia “a sign of exclusion and division” with mosque move

Angelus 12/7: Pope breaks silence on Hagia Sophia, says “very saddened” by reconversion to mosque

Analysis: Francis speaks out against Hagia Sophia mosque reconversion… Too little, too late?

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)

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

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PhD in ancient Jewish/Christian history and philosophy. Lecturer in ethics at Loyola University Maryland, Alcalá de Henares (Spain) campus. Religion journalist with 4 years experience.