“O YOU who have attained to faith! When the call to prayer is sounded on the day of congregation, hasten to the remembrance of God, and leave all worldly commerce: this is for your own good, if you but knew it.” – Qur’an 62:9.
Today, Friday, July 24, as I write, perhaps as many as 1,000 Muslim worshippers – separated one meter apart – in the presence of Turkey’s President Recep Tayyip Erdoan, are praying Salat al-Jumuah – congregational prayers – inside Istanbul’s Hagia Sophia for the first time in 86 years.
Tens of thousands more Muslims, gathered in the streets outside the historic cathedral, join them in prayer.
“ALL PRAISE is due to God alone, the Sustainer of all the worlds, the Most Gracious, the Dispenser of Grace, Lord of the Day of Judgment!” they pray in unison.
The Hagia Sophia, today an UNESCO World Heritage site, was the most spectacular Byzantine Cathedral in all of Christendom. Built in 537 CE during the reign of Byzantine emperor Justinian I and used as a church for 916 years, it was converted into a mosque in 1453 by Sultan Mehmet II at the time when the Ottoman Empire conquered Constantinople, connecting East and West across the Bosphorus.
Today, Istanbul’s beauty has been tarnished by Erdoan’s recent decision to declare Hagia Sophia a mosque and permit Muslim worship.
Erdoan’s announcement – despite international cautions and concerns about changing the status of a monument revered by Christians and Muslims – negated the building’s 1935 conversion to a museum by Kemal Atatürk, founding father of modern Turkey.
Erdoan, in defiance, said that it’s Turkey’s “historical and sovereign right” to convert the museum to a mosque, even as he pledged to keep Hagia Sophia open to tourists and people of all faiths.
He’s right – Turkey has that sovereign right.
New turquoise-colored prayer carpets have been installed, and intricate mosaics of the Virgin Mary, baby Jesus and other Christian symbols will be veiled by curtains at prayer time.
Turkey has that right; it’s just not the right right in the right place.
The Hagia Sophia that stands today is the third church built on the same site. The first iteration, built in 360 CE, was damaged by fire and rioting in 404. It was rebuilt by Emperor Theodosius II in 415 CE before being damaged again by rioting during the Nika Revolts in 532 which destroyed half of Constantinople and resulted in the massacre of 30,000 Byzantines. The emperor Justinian rebuilt Hagia Sophia in just 5 years and consecrated it in 537 CE.
Following Ottoman restoration, which improved its foundations, strengthened support for the dome and the added minarets by architect Mimar Sinan, Hagia Sophia became one of the world’s greatest architectural achievements, one which annually draws nearly 4 million visitors.
Gökay Sofuoglu, from the Turkish Community in Germany association, said Erdoan’s decision reflected poorly on Turkey. “The Hagia Sophia is a world heritage site and a symbol of peaceful coexistence between religions,” he said. “It is absolutely the wrong decision to turn it into a mosque.”
While many Muslims – especially Muslim supremacists and Turkish Muslims who comprise Erdoan’s base – welcome the decision, I’m uncomfortable with it as it contradicts both the tolerance demanded by God for all humankind and contradicts Islam’s commitment to pluralism and coexistence.
Qur’an 22:40 speaks with favor of “… [all] monasteries and churches and synagogues and mosques – in [all of] which God’s name is abundantly extolled…”
When the Prophet Muhammad met with monks from Sinai’s St. Catherine’s Monastery in 628 CE, he protected them with a “Charter of Privileges,” which read:
“… I [Muhammad] have caused this document to be written for Christians of the East and the West, for those who live near, and for those of distant lands, for the Christians living at present and for those who will come after, for those Christians who are known to us and for those as well whom we do not know.”
The “Charter” covers all aspects of human rights, including such topics as the protection of Christians, freedom of worship and movement, freedom to appoint their own judges and to own and maintain their properties, exemption from military service, and the right of protection in war,” and includes, “None of their churches and other places of worship will be desolated, destroyed or demolished. No material of their churches will be used for building mosques or houses for the Muslims. Any Muslim so doing will be regarded recalcitrant to God and His Prophet.”
In another example – after Jerusalem surrendered to Muslim forces in 637 CE – Bishop Sophronius, as he was giving a tour of the Church of the Holy Sepulcher to the victorious Caliph Omar, offered to allow the Caliph to pray inside the church as the noon prayer approached.
Omar demurred and prayed outside the church, fearing if he prayed inside the sanctuary it might become a Muslim place of worship.
Today, those are the examples which humanity is invited to follow.
Today, Erdoan fails to follow those examples.
For the religious conservatives who have rallied behind him, Erdoan is an exemplar of an authoritarian ruler who nurtures his populist, conservative religious base with rulings and acts that are blatantly self-serving, anti-democratic and anti-pluralistic.
Be attentive: This controversy is not just a Turkish Issue, nor is it an uniquely religious issue – it’s about greed and political power. Mosques have been converted into churches in Spain and destroyed in India, churches in Iraq and Egypt destroyed, national capitals changed, peoples disenfranchised and oppressed, all out of manifestations of supremacism, bigotry and exclusivism.
Pope Francis, whose namesake, Francis of Assisi, once tried to negotiate with Ottoman Sultan Al-Malik al-Kamil in 1219 in order to end the Crusades – last week ended his weekly Angelus prayer saying, “…I think of Hagia Sophia, and I am very saddened.”
“The beauty and mystery of this world only emerges through affection, attention, interest and compassion,” Turkey’s Nobel Laureate Orhan Pamuk wrote in “My Name Is Red.” “… open your eyes wide and actually see this world by attending to its colors, details and irony.”
We should all be saddened by the machinations of blasphemers who, in our name, attempt to manipulate our faith and our love for the Beloved, to advance their political and nationalistic agendas.
Open your eyes wide.
Robert Azzi, a photographer and writer who lives in Exeter, can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org. The views expressed are those of the writer. His columns are archived at theotherazzi.wordpress.com.