Turkey has announced a notable cultural change. President Erdoğan recently announced the conversion of Hagia Sophia from a museum into a Mosque. Prayers are to begin on July 24th. For many people, especially Christians and political secularists, the decision was disappointing.
The Hagia Sophia was first built in the 6th century. Notably, it was Byzantine Emperor Justinian I who ordered its construction as a Christian Cathedral. In 1453, the building was converted into a Mosque after the Ottoman conquest of Constantinople by Mehmed II. Then in 1934, the church-turned-mosque was converted into a museum by modern Turkey’s secularising founder, Mustafa Kemal Atatürk. Hence, this great masterpiece of world architecture is the result of both Christian and Islamic genius. It represents the convergence of European and Asian cultures. And its conversion causes many people to be offended by the idea that it return to a sectarian role.
Many accuse Erdoğan’s Justice and Development Party of threatening Turkey’s official political secularism. Even Pope Francis expressed great sadness over the decision during the Angelus prayer on Sunday. He said, “I think of Hagia Sophia, and I am very saddened.” The Pope then stood in silence for several minutes after denouncing the decision. Opponents of Erdoğan say the decision reflects intolerance for the nation’s Christian minority.
In spite of the objections, the decision is appeals to Erdoğan’s conservative base, a coalition those dedicated to Neo-Ottomanism and those in favor of a bigger political role for Islamic values.