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Posted on Thu 16 July 2020

Return Hagia Sophia to its rightful owners

It is now official: Hagia Sophia, for a thousand years the world’s largest cathedral, and since 1934 a museum, is to be turned back into a mosque. Ever since I heard of the possibility, I have been praying it would not be so because of the impact this would have on Muslim- Christian relations in Turkey, the Middle East generally and beyond.A suitably purged and compliant judiciary, however, has bowed to the wishes of the authoritarian President Erdogan that Turkey should become more Islamic and less secular.

There has been a church on the site since 360 AD and the present building dates from the reign of Justinian in the mid- sixth century. When Mehmed II, as part of his Jihad, conquered Constantinople in 1453 and renamed it Islamople or Istanbul, Hagia Sophia was converted into a mosque and remained thus until the secular nationalists, led by Kemal Ataturk, turned it into a museum open to all.Such a turning of a cathedral into a mosque is not unique. Long before then, the Cathedral of St John the Baptist in Damascus had been turned into the Umayyad mosque and the Fatimid Caliph Al Hakim had razed the Church of the Holy Sepulchre to the ground, thus sparking the Crusades. When the armies of Islam swept through the Middle East, Shari’a or Islamic Law permitted the conquered peoples, Jews, Christians and Zoroastrians, to retain their places of worship, provided they sought permission from Muslim rulers to repair them. They could not display any signs of their faith outside the buildings, nor could they ring bells to call their people to worship.They were not allowed to build new places of worship.In practice, as we have seen, even the restrictive provisions of the Shari’a were not observed and places of worship were either taken over or destroyed. Muslims and others point out that such destruction and occupation is not unique to the Islamic world.After the reconquista, they claim that famous mosques like those of Cordoba and Seville in Spain were either taken over or destroyed. Where Cordoba is concerned, there had been a church where the Islamic rulers built their mosque but in Seville there does not seem to be any evidence that the Al Mohad mosque, on the site of which the present cathedral stands, was built on the site of a pre-conquest church, though the population there, as elsewhere on the Iberian Peninsula, was unwillingly subjugated to Muslim rule.

What lessons can we learn from such a chequered history? As far as Hagia Sophia is concerned, it is a World Heritage site and there must be questions about the survival of the important vestiges of Byzantine art which remain on it walls and embedded in its architecture.The depiction of the human form in general and of prophets, in particular, is forbidden in Islam and even more so in a mosque. Will this art be covered up or removed from its original setting? With the Taliban, Al Qaeda and ISIS, the world has had its fill of iconoclasm already.Will a modern state, like Turkey, sponsor further iconoclasm? How will UNESCO and other international organisations, not to speak of academia, respond to this possibility of iconoclasm?

freedom of thought, expression and belief has been declining in Turkey for the last several years.Another Hagia Sophia, this one in Nicaea, where the Second Council of Nicaea was held in 787, has already been turned into a mosque.The seminary for training clergy of the Ecumenical Patriarchiate at Halki remains closed and there are widespread allegations of government interference in the life of the Armenian Church. Protestant churches have been attacked by extremists and church workers injured or even killed. Foreign church workers are often arrested and then deported. I was myself present at a Turkish Church celebration, in a prominent hotel, which was broken up by the Police on the grounds that we did not have a permit to meet! Turkey is not alone in this situation. The single most frequent reason for clashes between Christians and Muslims in Egypt is attempts by mobs either to prevent a church being built or repaired or to destroy it if it has been built already. I asked a senior official in Iran how many churches had been built since the Islamic Revolution. He replied, “ None, the Christians don’t need them!”In fact, some have been seized, others closed and yet others demolished.In Pakistan, similarly, churches are often targeted by mobs, congregations fired on or bombed to prevent them worshipping in a particular locality. When I was a bishop there, some middle class, professional people came to urge me not to build a church in their area. A church we built in a poor area has not been allowed to open because of pressure from the wealthy community which surrounds the poor Christians. In Nigeria, churches are often the first port of call for Boko Haram and the terrorist herdsmen now terrorising the Middle Belt of that country.Churches are burnt down, clergy murdered and the people attacked with deadly weapons.It is a devastating experience to stand in the burnt out shell of a church attacked in this way.

In such a climate, surely states, like Turkey, should be upholding freedom of belief and worship rather than further jeopardising them by jingoistic actions like converting churches into mosques? To some extent, we can relativise the past and agree that people then were acting according to religious and cultural norms of the time.There is no justification for it now. As far as I know, no Christians today are planning to turn mosques into churches. Where religious and cultural freedom is being violated as with Uighur Muslims and Christians in China or Rohingya Muslims and Christians in Myanmar, the whole civilised world stands united in condemnation of it.In the West, Muslims are free to worship and to build mosques for their common life. Will they join in with others to appeal to the Turkish authorities not to take this regressive step with regard to Hagia Sophia? For many years now, I have taken part in, and led Christian dialogue with Muslims.During such gatherings, the question of reciprocity often comes up. Some Christians and others ask, quite understandably, if Muslims have freedom of worship in the West and other non-Muslim settings, shouldn’t Christians and people of other faiths have similar freedoms in the Muslim world? I have tried not to make reciprocity a ‘tit for tat’ matter but rather to work for the possibility of all sides in the dialogue affirming fundamental freedoms for their fellow citizens, including, of course, freedom to have places of worship where they can worship freely.Is the Turkish leadership willing to affirm such a position? Turkey is a signatory to the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, Article18 of which guarantees freedom of thought, expression and belief, as well as the right to manifest such belief alone or with others and to express such belief in worship and observance. Will Turkey stand with those nations that unequivocally uphold such fundamental freedoms or will it join those obscurantist nations that systemically deny such freedoms to their citizens, especially if they are minorities?

I am hoping and praying that this action by the Turkish State will not be taken as a signal, within and outside Turkey, to seize, convert or destroy places of worship and ancillary buildings belonging to Christians and other religious minorities. Turkey can signal now that it seeks to protect the properties of religious minorities and thus prevent the possibility of imitative action against churches being taken elsewhere. The alternative is too horrible to contemplate.

This article was first published in the Spectator and can be accessed here

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