After 85 years as a museum, the Hagia Sophia is poised to once again become a mosque. Might it also again become a church?
A Turkish court is scheduled to rule on July 2 if the iconic Byzantine basilica can be opened for Muslim worship.
Built in 537 by Emperor Justinian, in 1453 the Ottoman sultan Mehmet II converted the Hagia Sophia into a mosque. Five centuries later, the secularizing founder of modern Turkey, Kamal Ataturk, turned it into a museum.
UNESCO designated the Hagia Sophia as a World Heritage Site in 1985.
President Recep Erdoğan has long stated his desire that the building would welcome prayer. In March, he led guests in silent Quranic recitation on the 567th anniversary of the conquest of Constantinople, dedicating the prayer to Mehmet II.
Last week, Erdoğan found an unlikely supporter.
“I believe that believers’ praying suits better the spirit of the temple than curious tourists running around to take pictures,” tweeted Armenian Patriarch Sahak II, resident in Istanbul.
“The site is large enough to allocate a space for Christians, [so that] the world can applaud our religious peace and maturity.”
The Armenian Apostolic Orthodox Church represents the largest Christian community remaining in Turkey, with an estimated 90,000 members. The Hagia Sophia used to serve as the cathedral for the Greek Orthodox Church, whose members have dwindled to an estimated 2,500.
Ecumenical Patriarch Bartholomew I, also resident in Istanbul, expressed his concern over the possible conversion.
“Instead of uniting, a 1,500-year-old heritage is dividing us,” said the Greek patriarch, who leads 300 million Orthodox worldwide.
“I am saddened and shaken.”
“The Hagia Sophia holds enormous spiritual and cultural significance to billions of believers of different faiths around the world,” tweeted Sam Brownback.
“We call on the government of Turkey to maintain it as a UNESCO World Heritage site … in its current status as a museum.”
Sahak II, whose election was covered by CT last December, wondered if his proposal to open the Hagia Sophia also as a church was “too utopian.”
But perhaps it would reduce the rancor.
“Enter the temple, breathe silence and learn from it,” tweeted the 85th Armenian patriarch of Constantinople.
“Hagia Sophia will advise you that there was nothing more valuable than peace.”
Turkish courts have also returned repurposed museums to their original status as churches, including the St. Paul’s Church in Tarsus in 2010. And in 2015, the 16,000 member Jewish community in Turkey was permitted to hold Hanukkah services for the first time.
“The salvation of the world is the covenant of the cross and the crescent,” Sahak II tweeted.
“And the honor of manifesting such peace to the world is worthy of the Republic of Turkey.”
Other churches-turned-museums, however, have been transformed into mosques. In 2013, CT reported on the similarly named Church of Hagia Sophia, on the Black Sea coastal city of Trabzon.
And in 2019, perhaps as a prelude, the historic Chora church was converted into a mosque.
The head of Turkey’s estimated 7,000-member Protestant community does not believe the government has recently treated Christian citizens with equality.
“The Hagia Sophia is just another attack on us as Christians, and very sad for the Armenians, the Orthodox, and the Catholics,” said Soner Tufan, stating his opinion is less important than that of the traditional churches.
“The government doesn’t look after us, or give us our rights.”
A chief complaint of Protestants in Turkey has been the surge in denials for residency permit renewals of expatriate Christian workers, and the deportation of others.
Social tensions are also increasing.
Fears that Christians are “responsible” for COVID-19 led one Turk to try and burn down a church in Istanbul. At another church in the city, protesters tore down its cross.
And while Turkish believers employed the coronavirus quarantine to participate in a global singalong initiative to bless their nation, Erdoğan advanced the reopening order to coincide with the 567th anniversary of Mehmet II’s conquest—hosted outside the Hagia Sophia.
Tufan believes that Sahak II realizes the cathedral is lost, so the patriarch is trying to negotiate and change the message to one of unity.
Tufan also thinks that despite the beautiful words, it is not the Armenian leader’s true opinion.
“Maybe he thinks this is a win-win position, but I don’t think others will agree.”
Nishan Bakalian, coordinator of church relations for the diaspora Union of Armenian Evangelical Churches in the Near East, thinks it serves Turkish propaganda.
“I don't think you will find anybody in the community debating as if this was a rational proposal,” he said.
“It sounds like a statement made by someone who is subject to the overt and covert pressures of a minority community, under the current Turkish regime.”
And for Paul Haidostian, president of the Armenian evangelical Haigazian University in Beirut, it is at best a theoretical discussion.
Sahak II’s call for cooperation might have been welcome, if Erdoğan’s purpose wasn’t purely political.
“Records must be set straight, and past wrongs acknowledged,” Haidostian said, in reference to the Armenian genocide.
“Interreligious dialogue is better served when peoples of faith humble their hearts to seek justice and repentance, rather than illustrious and politicized spaces.”