For almost five centuries, Hagia Sophia —built as an imperial Byzantine cathedral in the 6th century and converted into a mosque following Ottoman Sultan Mehmet II’s conquest of Constantinople in 1453— symbolized the domination of non-Muslim subjects by their Muslim rulers. As part of his reforms to transform an empire of subjects to a secular republic of citizens, Turkey’s founding father Mustafa Kemal Ataturk transformed Hagia Sophia into a museum in 1934. Ataturk’s move was a step toward institutionalizing equality at home and reducing tensions with Greece, and other Western nations, which he fought only a decade early during and in the aftermath of World War
Although some in Turkey welcomed Hagia Sophia’s new status as a museum, others did not receive it well. For decades, it has remained a rallying call for Turkish Islamists. We fear this decision would embolden extremists.
Erdogan has made no secret of his own ambitions for the site.
In his youth, as a member of Turkey’s successive Islamist parties, Erdogan shared and voiced these dreams. Since the rise of his Islamist-rooted Justice and Development Party (AKP) to power in 2002, however, he refrained from publicly endorsing such demands for converting Hagia Sophia. More recently he has used the Hagia Sophia as a rallying cry for his supporters in moments of personal, political crisis like in an attempt to mobilize voters ahead of challenging local elections in 2019 and, more recently, to divert public attention away from Turkey’s COVID-19-induced economic downturn.
Erdogan’s plans have raised concern among religious freedom advocates not only in Turkey but also in the United States. In March 2019, the United States Commission on International Religious Freedom (USCIRF) condemned Erdogan for his plans to change the status of Hagia Sophia. USCIRF’s 2020 annual report also expressed concern over a similar case where the Turkish Council of State announced its decision to change the status of the Church of the Holy Saviour at Chora into a mosque after it too had served as a museum since 1945. Turkey is singled out in the same report as the only NATO member state to be on USCIRF’s “Special Watch List,” an indication of the shortcomings of the country’s religious freedom record.
In response to Erdogan’s recent statements, USCIRF has demanded Ankara to withdraw plans to reconvert Hagia Sophia into a mosque. Similarly, Ambassador at Large for International Religious Freedom, Sam Brownback has called on the Turkish government “to maintain it as a UNESCO World Heritage site and maintain accessibility to all in its current status as a museum.”
The prospects of Hagia Sophia’s conversion have also drawn criticism from Greek Orthodox faith leaders. Ecumenical Patriarch Bartholomew I stated on June 24 that he was “saddened and shaken” with the recent debates on Hagia Sophia’s future. On June 30, in his sermon after Divine Liturgy, he warned that “any conversion of Hagia Sophia into a mosque will turn millions of Christians around the world against Islam.”
He also reminded the world that Hagia Sophia, in its current status as a museum, can “function as place and symbol of encounter, dialogue and peaceful coexistence of peoples and cultures, mutual understanding and solidarity between Christianity and Islam.” Archbishop Elpidophoros of the Greek Orthodox Archdiocese of America has stressed that Hagia Sophia “must be preserved as a bridge of intercultural and interfaith understanding.”
All of the calls underscore the symbolic importance of Hagia Sophia as it relates to escalating tensions and also its power to defuse them.
Erdogan must keep his hands off the Hagia Sophia lest he set a dangerous precedent for vulnerable faith communities and their sacred heritage not only in Turkey, but also in the Middle East.
In the war-torn region, the painful memory of genocidal killing, forced conversion, and enslavement of minorities, and the expropriation and destruction of their religious sites is still fresh.
The last thing Turkey and the Middle East needs is a fait accompli to reinforce sectarian hierarchies and symbols of domination. The Hagia Sophia must remain a beacon of religious pluralism, peaceful coexistence, and mutual accommodation.