The Hagia Sophia in Turkey served as a Christian church from 537 AD until 1453, when Constantinople was conquered by the Ottoman Turks, who turned it into a mosque. Since 1935, it has been a museum, a decision made by secular Turkish leaders. Jacob Resneck reports on the efforts afoot in Turkey to turn the Hagia Sophia back into a place of Muslim worship:
Some critics say the spate of conversions of Byzantine-era Christian houses of worship from museums to mosques reflects the government’s payback against Turkey’s former secular military elite, which has historically jailed leaders of religious parties and staged coups against elected governments.
“It is mostly a challenge to the secular rulers of Turkish republic,” said Engin Akyurek, a professor of Byzantine art at Istanbul University. The government “re-converts church-mosques which were used as museums during the republican era so it is related to the domestic politics,” he said.
Terry Mattingly offers further background:
The problem, of course, is that many Muslims — some would say “most,” rather than “many” — believe that it is impossible under Sharia law for a worship space that has been used as a mosque to ever be used for another purpose. Obviously, the secular leaders of Turkey would have never considered allowing Haggia Sophia to be used, once again, as one of the world’s greatest cathedrals.
[Resneck’s] report notes that the primary tensions that are driving this story appear to be WITHIN ISLAM, as opposed to another round of tensions between Muslims and Turkey’s tiny oppressed Christian population.
Dreher condemns the efforts to re-purpose the site:
There is no need to do this.
None. It is an act of cultural imperialism, nothing more. The Islamists simply want to rub the noses of secularists and Christians in their powerlessness under the new Islamist order. It is true that in ages past, triumphant religions made their own temples out of the temples of the defeated. The Church did this to many pagan temples, and, notably, seized the grand Cordoba mosque in the Reconquista, and turned it into a church. Neither Christians nor Muslims have clean hands in these matters.
That said, nearly a century ago, the secular rulers of Turkey made the generous decision to make the Hagia Sophia, which stood as one of the world’s great Christian churches for 1,000 years, into neutral ground between the religions. That part of Istanbul is home to glorious mosques, most notably the famed Blue Mosque. There are plenty of beautiful and historic places for Muslims to pray in that part of Istanbul. The Hagia Sophia stands today as a monument, not a house of worship. I have been there. Were it still a mosque, that would be one thing. But again, for most of the last century it has been a museum. What is wrong with that? We live in a different era now, an era in which among advanced countries, this kind of thing is not supposed to happen.
(Photo of the Hagia Sophia by David Spender)