CHURCHES in Britain and overseas have deplored a Turkish government decision to turn the ancient Hagia Sophia basilica in Istanbul into a mosque, and warned that the move could damage Christian-Muslim relations (News, 19 June).
“Hagia Sophia has been a unique centre symbolising a co-existence of people of faith,” the Archbishop of Canterbury said on Tuesday in a statement with Cardinal Vincent Nichols and other co-presidents of Churches Together in England. “It is a UNESCO World Heritage Site and, as a place where the rich history of Istanbul is told visually, can be a living example of religious tolerance and respect.
“To alter the status quo in this way is a powerful, symbolic change that is lamentable and painful for many people of faith the world over.”
The church leaders were reacting to the 10 July decree by the Turkish President, Recep Tayyip Erdoğan, which directed that the sixth-century landmark, which was turned into a mosque and then, in the 20th century, became a museum, be opened for Muslim prayers again from 24 July.
The Bishop in Europe, Dr Robert Innes, supported the lament expressed by the CTE. “Hagia Sophia has wide-reaching significance for Christians and Muslims, and a great benefit of its museum status since 1934 has been to help build a common understanding of our shared history in this unique city,” he said in a statement on Wednesday.
“We have shared the sadness of this loss and the distress of many partners with the UK Ambassador to Turkey, and a desire that reassurances are sought regarding future access to Hagia Sophia as a World Heritage site, recognised by UNESCO.”
Dr Innes, whose diocese covers 40 countries, including Turkey, continued: “It is our fervent hope and prayer that opportunities to foster and strengthen dialogue, to build trust and mutual understanding among faiths in all communities where we are represented, will continue to have room to flourish.”
Speaking on Sunday, the Pope said that he was “very saddened”, while the head of the Geneva-based World Council of Churches told President Erdoğan in a letter that the WCC’s 350 member-denominations felt “grief and dismay” at the decree, which had “reversed positive signs of Turkey’s openness” and would encourage other groups seeking “to overturn the existing status quo and promote renewed divisions”.
The Council’s interim general-secretary, the Revd Professor Ioan Sauca, said: “In times of challenge, the WCC and its member-Churches have spoken out in defence and support of other religious communities, including Muslim communities.
“The decision to convert such an emblematic place as Hagia Sophia from a museum back to a mosque will inevitably create uncertainties, suspicions, and mistrust, undermining all our efforts to bring people of different faiths together.”
Founded by Emperor Justinian I, Hagia Sophia was the world’s largest church at its dedication in 537, but was used as a mosque for five centuries under Ottoman rule, before being turned into a museum in 1935 by modern Turkey’s secularising founder, Mustafa Kemal Atatürk.
In its ruling, the State Council court confirmed that Atatürk’s museum order had been illegal, clearing the way for the decree by President Erdoğan, who justified it as a reflection of the national will.
“I hope this decision will benefit all humanity — the doors of Hagia Sophia will be open to all,” the President said on Saturday. “When visitors come, they will see the rumours are not true, since we will preserve this monument’s cultural heritage.”
Criticism also came from the European Commission, however, whose foreign-affairs representative, Josep Borrell, told reporters that the decree was “disappointing and regrettable”.
The director-general of UNESCO, Audrey Azoulay, said on Friday that the basilica, which attracted 3.5 million visitors annually before Covid-19, had been “a unique testimony to mutual relations between Europe and Asia”. Its handover had been made “without any form of dialogue or prior notice”.
Christian minorities have long complained of discrimination in Turkey, most of whose 84.3 million inhabitants are Sunni Muslims, and have faced problems recruiting clergy, establishing associations, and obtaining building permits.
Among angry Orthodox reactions, Archbishop Ieronymos of Athens branded Erdogan’s move “an insult and injury to all civilised humanity”, while Archbishop Chrysostomos Dimitriou of Cyprus said that the failure of European governments to stand up to Turkey showed that Orthodox Christians had “no allies, no brothers, no supporters”.
In Russia, Metropolitan Hilarion Alfeyev, the Orthodox Church’s foreign director, told a TV interviewer that Hagia Sophia held “the same value” for Orthodox Christians as St Peter’s Basilica, in Rome, held for Roman Catholics.The 90-year-old Albanian Archbishop Anastasios Yannoulatos accused the Turkish government on Tuesday of launching a “cultural jihad”.
Most governments have reacted cautiously to the mosque conversion, which was condemned by Greece, France, and the US, but described on Monday by a German government spokesman, Steffen Seibert, as a cultural issue that “should not concern international politics”.
A Kremlin spokesman, Dmitry Peskov, said on Tuesday that Russia was also “satisfied” with Turkish pledges that Hagia Sophia, which contains Christian mosaics dating back 1300 years, would be “preserved and remain open to visitors”.
In Greece, the Orthodox Romfea agency said that Premier Kyriakos Mitsotakis had offered “support and encouragement” to the Ecumenical Patriarch, Bartholomew I, who is based in Istanbul, and who cautioned in a 30 June sermon that the handover of the building to Muslims could push “millions of Christians around the world against Islam” and cause “a break between two worlds”.
The Middle East Council of Churches described the Turkish move as an “assault on religious freedom”, countermanding three decades of “ecumenical initiatives and interfaith dialogues”, and urged the United Nations and Arab League to intervene.
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