Unexpected implications of converting Hagia Sophia into a mosque

A Muslim service can be held in Hagia Sophia in Istanbul soon. Photo: UOJ

The question of converting Hagia Sophia in Istanbul into a mosque is almost solved. But what can it lead to for the whole Muslim world?

There is a high probability that the Hagia Sophia Cathedral in Istanbul, which currently has the status of a museum, will be turned into a mosque. This step of the Turkish government and personally President R. Erdogan should become a landmark event for the world geopolitics, for Europe's relations with the Muslim world, for Orthodoxy and Christianity in general. However, the consequences of this step may be quite unexpected.

Hagia Sophia, Istanbul

The intentions to convert Hagia Sophia into a functioning mosque were specifically voiced by the Turkish president more than a month ago. This caused a strong, mostly negative diplomatic reaction both from the governments of various countries and religious organizations. This negative position was justified by the fact that a change in the status of Hagia Sophia would violate the status quo established after the formation of the Turkish Republic and the country’s refusal to continue the imperial policy of the Ottoman Empire. It was then that the founding father of the modern Turkish state, Kemal Ataturk, decided to turn the Hagia Sophia mosque into a museum. In 1935, a layer of plaster was removed and people could again see the mosaic faces of Jesus Christ and the Mother of God, hidden from the eyes for many centuries.

A mosaic image of the Blessed Virgin Mary in the apse of Hagia Sophia

Today R. Erdogan, who on the one hand proclaims himself a follower of the covenants of K. Ataturk and, on the other hand, pursues a policy of Neo-Osmanism, has received the right again, as the conqueror of Constantinople, Sultan Mehmed II, to сonvert the main Christian temple into a mosque. The Supreme Court of Turkey on July 2, 2020, decided that the status of Hagia Sophia may be changed by a presidential decree. And there is practically no hope that Erdogan will not exercise this right. The statements of intent to convert Hagia Sophia into a mosque were made so clearly and decisively that to abandon them would seriously damage the political image of the Turkish president and as a result his political influence both in Turkey and abroad. And the Turkish Foreign Ministry is very tough on the calls to leave everything as it is, made by governments of different countries and international organizations.

For example, after an unequivocal call from the U.S. State Department to abandon the intentions to change the status of Hagia Sophia, the Turkish diplomatic service allowed itself to respond very harshly: "The Hagia Sophia is the property of Turkey, like all our cultural assets located on our land. Every kind of power disposition regarding Hagia Sophia is also an issue concerning our internal affairs within Turkey’s sovereignty rights." Translated from the diplomatic language, this means: we will do whatever we want and we don't care about your opinion. Just a few years ago, no country could talk to the U.S. authorities like that. But times are changing...

Why Erdogan is determined to do it or die

First, he raises his authority, shaken recently by the country's economic difficulties, within the country. Erdogan's decline in popularity is evidenced by the local elections held in Turkey a few years ago, which showed a significant decrease in support for the ruling party by the population.

Secondly, he is taking revenge on Europe for the humiliation of the recent period when the European Union accepted Turkey's application for membership in the organization but literally tormented it with delays and new demands.

Thirdly, it is taking revenge on the U.S. for the possible organization of an attempted coup d'état in 2016. As is known, the U.S. has only recently tried to lobby for the return of the status of an Orthodox church to Hagia Sophia. In 2007, the "Free Agia Sophia Council" was even created, which made it possible to organize hearings in the U.S. Congress on this issue. At the time of the total dominance of the United States in the Middle East, it did not seem so unattainable, but now it is very different. And after the failure of the coup d'état, the U.S. turned from a partner-protector of Turkey into its enemy, especially for President R. Erdogan himself. An interesting detail: pro-governmental media in Turkey suggest that the first Muslim service will be held in Hagia Sophia on July 15, the 4th anniversary of the failed putsch.

Fourthly, and this is probably the most important, R. Erdogan reinforces his claim for Neo-Osmanism and leadership in the Muslim world with practical steps.

Of course, there are both disadvantages and significant risks for Turkey. They are obvious. This is an increase in tension with Europe and the United States. However, this tension already exists, and it cannot be removed by abandoning the plans to turn Hagia Sophia into a mosque. There is an unresolved migrant problem between Europe and Turkey. Turkey believes that the European authorities are preventing Turkish goods from entering the European market, as well as infringing on the rights of Turks living in Europe. Turkey is in conflict with the U.S. because of the American support for the Kurds and opposition preacher F. Gullen, who R. Erdogan accuses of organizing an attempted coup d’état in 2016. There are many other problems, and their presence allows the Turkish authorities to act without regard for the opinion of Europe and America.

Response of Greece and Phanar

The Greeks put themselves in a very difficult position. The government of this country slapped Turkey’s plans and stated that the conversion of Hagia Sophia into a mosque would dramatically exacerbate relations between the two countries. However, this relationship is already exacerbated to the bitter end. One of the main stumbling blocks is Turkey’s development of the shelf near the unrecognized Republic of Northern Cyprus. Greece also made very belligerent statements on this issue, but in reality it cannot counteract Turkey. Greece once again puts forward its formidable diplomatic statements, behind which there is real powerlessness to respond in the least.

The most affected party, if the Turkish plans come true, will be the Patriarchate of Constantinople and personally Patriarch Bartholomew. If (when) a Muslim service takes place in Hagia Sophia, the prestige of the Patriarchate of Constantinople will suffer greatly. Its claims to pan-Orthodox supremacy will be dealt a significant blow. Even greater damage has already been done to the prestige of Patriarch Bartholomew because of his monthly silence, which has become simply improper. After the plans of the Turkish government had been criticized by many states and international organizations, as well as many religious organizations, the Ecumenical Patriarch finally made a statement that looked more like fawning than a real protest.

First, the Head of Phanar told the Washington Post American newspaper that he was “disappointed” by the likely conversion of Hagia Sophia into a mosque, and a little later he said the following in his homily:

“Hagia Sophia can function as place and symbol of encounter, dialogue and peaceful coexistence of peoples and cultures, mutual understanding and solidarity between Christianity and Islam <...>  and "the conversion of Hagia Sophia into a mosque will disappoint millions of Christians around the world, and Hagia Sophia, which, due to its sacredness, is a vital center where East is embraced with the West, will fracture these two worlds."

But even these extremely cautious words were perceived in Turkey as a threat to Muslims. “We would advise Bartholomew to express regret for all these Muslim works that were destroyed in many parts of the world, especially in Greece. He warns of the West’s planned attacks on Islam and Muslims,” said Ismet Buyakutaman, the Secretary-General of the Turkish National Action Party.

Response of Russia and ROC

Interesting is the way Russia and the Russian Orthodox Church responses to the plans of Turkey. It is different. The Russian Foreign Ministry was very soft on the matter. “We hope that whatever decision on the status of this unique landmark is taken it will be balanced and will take into account the highly delicate nature of this topic for believers, the interfaith context and also the accepted practice of the management of UNESCO heritage sites on the basis of international law,” said Russian Foreign Ministry spokeswoman Maria Zakharova. If to translate the above from the diplomatic language, it means we do not welcome such actions, but we will not protest expressly.

Patriarch Bartholomew made a strategic mistake by confronting directly the Russian Orthodox Church and indirectly Russia on the Ukrainian issue. Instead of having an ally in the person of the Russian Church, which corresponds to a centuries-old historical tradition, Phanar chose to confront Her. Yet, only Russia could probably interfere with R. Erdogan’s intention regarding Hagia Sophia. Anyway, Phanar made Russia's intercession impossible. Now, Russia can only gain from the tainted reputation of the Patriarchate of Constantinople. It would seem that the Russian Orthodox Church also wins in this scenario. Instead, She expresses a strong protest. “We believe that this act in today's conditions is an unacceptable violation of religious freedom and this, of course, is not only an internal affair of Turkey, as many Turkish officials now say. This is a monument of shared Christian significance, global significance,” said Metropolitan Hilarion (Alfeyev), Head of the Department for External Church Relations of the Russian Orthodox Church.

By the way, it is useful to compare this statement with that of Patriarch Bartholomew. Such a sharp tone of the Russian Orthodox Church is due to the awareness of the fact that despite the antagonism between the Russian Orthodox Church and the Patriarchate of Constantinople on the Ukrainian issue, the conversion of Hagia Sophia into a mosque is a blow to the whole of Orthodoxy which calls for the mobilization of the universal Church.

What are possible implications after the status of Hagia Sophia has been changed?

As already mentioned, it will result in a fall in the prestige of the Patriarchate of Constantinople and its influence in the Orthodox World. Perhaps, talks will be resumed that the Patriarch of Constantinople has nothing to do in Istanbul and it is time for him to move elsewhere – to Athos, for example, or to the United States. Significant damage will be inflicted on Phanar’s plans to somehow formalize its primacy of power, let alone honor, among the Local Orthodox Churches. What primacy is there to talk about, if Phanar failed to defend even the Hagia Sophia's status of the museum?

Presumably, the recognition by the Local Churches of Phanar’s offspring, the so-called Orthodox Church of Ukraine (OCU), will cease or even reverse. It will lead to exacerbation of the conflict within the OCU itself between its "bishops", eager for power. Filaret Denisenko, in turn, will receive some scores in favor of the existence of his Kyiv Patriarchate.

The tension between Turkey on the one hand and the United States and Europe on the other will step up, but not much. Perhaps, some sanctions will be introduced, which no one is afraid of.

But the most unexpected answer to R. Erdogan as a candidate for leadership in the Muslim world can fly from ... Israel. In order to understand this, let us turn to the arguments of Turkey, which it uses to respond to all protesters against the conversion of Hagia Sophia into a mosque.

Turkish Foreign Ministry: “Hagia Sophia is the property of Turkey like all our cultural values located on our land. Any kind of intentions of the authorities regarding Hagia Sophia is also a matter of our internal affairs within the framework of Turkey’s sovereignty rights.”

Turkish President R. Erdogan: "Accusations against our country because of Hagia Sophia are a direct encroachment on our right to sovereignty."

In other words, a line of reasoning of the Turkish authorities as for the right to convert Hagia Sophia into a mosque stems from sovereignty over this shrine. In turn, today Israel declares its sovereignty over Jerusalem and the Temple Mount, on which the main shrines of Christianity, Islam and Judaism are located.

Temple Mount, Jerusalem

It turns out that Israel can deal with the shrines located on the Temple Mount in the same way as Turkey with Hagia Sophia, i.e. to act based on their own interests and not pay attention to the opinions of other religious organizations and states. A big commotion this year was caused by a group of Jewish religious leaders who appealed to the Israeli authorities to allow the lamb to be sacrificed at the Jewish Passover. Basically, the Orthodox Jews intend to rebuild the temple of Solomon, which was destroyed in the 70th year and from which there remained one Wailing Wall.

Western (Wailing) Wall, Jerusalem

Today, part of the area of the destroyed Jewish temple is occupied by the Kubbat al-Sahra mosque (Dome of the Rock).

Kubbat as-Sahra Mosque (Dome of the Rock), Jerusalem

Existing plans for the restoration of the Judean temple provide for two options: either to destroy Kubbat al-Sahra or to preserve its integrity. But in any case, the Muslim world will be dead set against such a construction. At this point Israel can take advantage of the arguments voiced today by R. Erdogan: our country, our sovereignty, we are free to do whatever we want. To some this may seem incredible, but who could have imagined that the Israeli state would be restored after nearly two thousand years of its destruction?

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