HAGIA SOPHIA IS NOT JUST ANOTHER BUILDING
“If it is possible, as far as it depends on you, live at peace with everyone.” (Romans 12:18)
Turkey has a major new mosque. Well, really it’s an old mosque. And actually it began as a huge church.
What is this place?
It is Hagia Sophia, a 6th century cathedral originally dedicated to the “Holy Wisdom.” Constructed in 537 A.D. by Byzantine Emperor Justinian I overlooking the Bosporos in Constantinople, it was a crown jewel for the empire and the eastern church. In fact, it was the largest church in the world for hundreds of years.
In 1453 Ottoman Sultan Mehmed the Conqueror laid siege to Constantinople. After capturing the Byzantine capital, the Ottoman emperor proceeded to convert Hagia Sophia into a mosque. It remained that way until the early 20th century, when a secular Turkish leader — Kemal Ataturk — decreed that it should become a museum. Later, in 1985, the United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization (UNESCO) designated it part of a world heritage site in Istanbul and it has become one of the most visited places in Turkey. Last year it attracted 3.7 million people!
However, the secularization of the church/mosque never sat well with some.
Now, enter 2020. Many of us remember current Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan from the battle to free incarcerated American pastor Andrew Brunson. His base of support includes Muslim conservatives who longed for years to see Hagia Sophia turned back into a functioning mosque. In line with that hope, Erdoğan led an effort to see the Ataturk administration’s 1934 order revoked and Muslim prayers to begin again in Hagia Sophia last month.
This controversy hasn’t been front page news here in the U.S., but should it be on our radar?
I think it’s easy for us — Christians in the West… especially evangelicals — to perhaps think, “Hey, it’s just a building. If a church congregation hasn’t been meeting there for hundreds of the years, what’s the big deal?”
Well, let me offer a few thoughts for consideration.
First, we have brothers and sisters in Christ in the Orthodox Christian community for whom this is a VERY big deal. Christian leaders in Greece, Russia, and elsewhere have sounded their concerns loudly, and we should try hard to listen and understand.
Among the concerned is Greek Orthodox Archbishop of America Elpidophoros, who met personally with President Donald Trump on this matter late last month. Asked why he was so worried about Turkey’s new move, Elpidophoros told BBC, “…if the state is endorsing the mentality of the conqueror, saying it’s my conquered right to have Hagia Sophia as a mosque, then this is a dangerous path, we don’t know where it can guide us, and this is my fear.”
And that leads to my second thought. We should be watching this change with an eye on what it could mean for persecuted religious minorities, included Christians.
The US Commission on International Religious Freedom (USCIRF) has monitored Turkey for years. In fact, USCIRF recommended earlier this year that Turkey — one of our NATO allies — be added to the State Department’s Special Watch List for religious freedom violators. In that vein, in a release denouncing the Hagia Sophia mosque designation, USCIRF Commissioner Nury Turkel said. “This decision comes at a time of increased fear and insecurity due to recent attacks on churches and other threats against religious and ethnic minorities and will only add to their sense of marginalization under President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan’s government.”
One additional thought — I think we need to be viewing this move in light of the region’s stability. The Hagia Sophia controversy comes as Turkey is working to assert itself as a power player more broadly. It’s no accident that Greece and Egypt are drawing closer as Turkey and Libya are growing their strategic partnership. Moreover, there is a confusing web of relationships and activities in places like Iraq, Lebanon, and Syria.
And let’s never forget that Israel is a unique resident of that region.
I believe our nation’s leaders, particularly President Trump and Secretary of State Mike Pompeo, need prayers on their behalf for wisdom as they seek to navigate this controversy over the Hagia Sophia.
Also, let’s be interceding for peace in region and let’s be praying with open hearts and minds for our brother and sisters in Christ who are seeking to live faithfully to our Lord in the midst of it all.
Aaron Mercer is a Contributing Writer with two decades of experience in Washington, D.C.’s public policy arena and Christian associations. A seasoned strategist, he aids organizations with research, analysis, and writing services, and he reflects on faith, technology, and the public square at FTPolicy.com. (Photo from Dreamstime.)
Has God put anything on your heart about Turkey, that region, or the Hagia Sophia? Share your comments and thoughts?
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