Hagia Sophia and places of religious freedom

A Turkish court abrogated that decree earlier this month when it announced that it had revoked Hagia Sophia’s status as a museum, which had become a monument of relative harmony and a symbol of the secularism that was part of the foundation of the modern Turkish state by Atatürk.

Jul 25, 2020

By Massimo Faggioli
“I love the Turks, and I appreciate the natural qualities of this people that got a prepared place in the path of civilization.”

This is what Archbishop Angelo Giuseppe Roncalli (the future Pope John XXIII) wrote in his diary in November 1939, almost five years after his arrival in Istanbul as papal delegate to Turkey and Greece. He would remain in that post until the end of 1944.

And on occasion he would report those words: “I love the Turks.”

Roncalli learned some Turkish and lamented that the Catholic clergy in Turkey was not familiar with the local language and culture. He had arrived in the country from his previous diplomatic mission in Bulgaria on January 5, 1935. It was just a few months after Mustafa Kemal Atatürk, founder of the constitutionally secular Republic of Turkey, decreed that Hagia Sophia would be turned into a museum.

A Turkish court abrogated that decree earlier this month when it announced that it had revoked Hagia Sophia’s status as a museum, which had become a monument of relative harmony and a symbol of the secularism that was part of the foundation of the modern Turkish state by Atatürk.

But the secular foundations of post-Ottoman Turkey, which Roncalli witnessed, are now the target of the peculiar kind of national Islamic populism of President Recep Tayyip Erdogan.

The long history of a religiously contested space
Shortly after the court’s ruling, on July 10, Erdogan issued a decree ordering Hagia Sophia to be opened for Muslim prayers. A presidential spokesman said that the mosque is open to anyone, included Pope Francis.

Erdoganthen visited the former Byzantine basilica on July 19. And it was confirmed that he plans to be among the more than 500 worshippers expected at Friday prayers, which are being prepared for July 24.

The recent move is part of a longer history of  Hagia Sophia as a religiously contested space.

Emperor Justinian built the massive basilica in the sixth century as the central cathedral of Byzantium, or the Eastern Roman Empire. It was converted to a mosque in 1453, when Ottoman Sultan Mehmed II conquered Constantinople and took it from the Byzantine Empire.

The 1935 conversion to a museum was one of the markers of Atatürk’s secularist project for the new Turkey.

Worldwide disapproval
This latest move by Erdogan has been met with disapproval from a wide coalition of international figures, especially the Russian Orthodox Church.

The Commission of the Catholic Episcopal Conferences of the European Union (COMECE) has called decision to reconvert the Istanbul monument into a mosque “a blow to interreligious dialogue”.

The Conference of European Churches has  warned the move could “potentially create fertile ground for religious hatred and subsequent violence”.

And Pope Francis, during his July 12 Angelus from St Peter’s Square in Rome, said with remarkable brevity that he was “very saddened” by the decision to turn the Hagia Sophia museum back into a mosque.

It would be simplistic to attribute to President Erdogan alone what is happening in Turkey, including the decision on Hagia Sophia.

There is a complex process involving different bodies in the Turkish state and actors in society – the courts, religious authorities, architects and conservationists and even shopkeepers who are concerned that they might lose business from tourists interested in the Christian frescoes.

Curtailing the rights of Turkey’s religious minorities
It is true that “the failure to recognise this kind of democratic process – the presumption of a ne farious, omnipotent state before which Turks are either adoring or inert – is perhaps the most condescending omission from Western discourse”.

On the other hand, the decision to turn Hagia Sophia into a mosque again fits a pattern of curtailing non-Muslim minorities in Erdogan’s Turkey.

And it’s not just a pattern concerning other churches in Turkey. There is also the other Hagia Sophia, a Byzantine church-turned-museum in Trabzon on the Black Sea coast, which was taken over by the city’s religious authorities in 2012.

It’s a pattern of what is happening to all religious minorities in Turkey. The turn from “assertive secularism to populist Islamism” in Erdogan’s Turkey means that religious and ethnic minorities are targeted.

It’s not only Hagia Sophia. Amidst attacks on churches and violations, a new wave of intolerance and of verbal and physical violence is affecting minorities.

Wide-ranging ramifications
This present case has diplomatic dimensions – for the Vatican, for the European Union and for the triangular relations between Turkey, the United States and Russia.

It also has ecumenical implications for the relations between the Catholic Church and the Orthodox Churches whose primus inter pares, the Patriarch of Constantinople, has his see in Istanbul.

Additionally, there are intra-Orthodox repercussions, especially between Constantinople and Moscow, with Vladimir Putin who envisages himself as a protector of Orthodox Christians both in the Middle East and in Europe.

And, finally, there are also intra-Muslim dimensions in the Middle East, in the new geometry of relations between Turkey, Saudi Arabia and Iran.

This is to say that the case of Hagia Sophia is not about the relations between Christians and Islam itself. Erdogan’s Turkey is a peculiar case within the global Muslim community.

But Hagia Sophia is a bellwether for religious freedom in the global religious landscape of today, and it poses serious questions for Christians.

The most important concern is about religious freedom. This is a question for the European Union, which had decided (before backtracking on July 8) to get rid of the EU special envoy for promoting the freedom of religions and belief  outside of Europe.

It’s also a most serious question also for Christian political leaders who try to use the issue of religious freedom as a weapon against geopolitical enemies while refusing to scrutinise their own record of respecting the religious freedom of minorities within the countries they govern.

This is not just about Christians
“This ruling is just the latest step in a centurylong effort by the Turkish government to erase both the history and presence of Christianity in Turkey,” said George Demacopoulos, a USbased Eastern Orthodox theologian.

“And while President Erdogan’s advocacy for this change is little more than crude pandering to conservative Islamists in the wake of growing criticism, the ruling forces a series of hard questions for the advocates of persecuted Christian minorities in the region who use the framework of ‘religious freedom’,” he added.

“Religious freedom is a useless category if it is only used to protect Christians from discrimination or if it fails to condemn the oppression of religious minorities in Christian communities,” Demacopoulos said.

The main issue with Hagia Sophia is not the preservation of its artistic or architectural masterpieces, for which Turkish authorities have issued reassuring statements.

It’s about whether we care for minorities whose future as communities and individuals is inseparable from the future of particular places. And it’s clear that Erdogan’s Turkey intends to contribute to the exodus and ultimately the disappearance of Christians from the Middle East.

But this is not just about Christians. As an Italian, I can only be embarrassed by the absence in Italian law on religious freedom that grants Muslim communities in Italy the right to build places of worship.

In the United States, which played an exceptional role in the history of “religious freedom”, politicians – and even believers – still tend to interpret this freedom as tailor-made for the 20th-century theological-political covenant of Protestant-Catholic-Jewish America. And that means limited freedom for all others (especially Muslims) when it’s about something more than simply the freedom of worship.

Part of a much larger national, regional and global picture
The decision regarding Hagia Sophia is a sign of our times. We are in a different phase in the “clash of civilizations” detected almost a quarter of a century ago by Samuel Huntington.

The clash is no longer between cultural-political movements within states involving actors that try to shape different relations with an often acephalous religious underbelly or, at best, a state within the state.

The clash has now fallen in the hands of nationalist and populist leaders whose legitimacy is charismatic and personal, but benefits from state legitimacy and state power. We see that now in the United States, India, Russia, Brazil and Turkey.

That is why it would be a naïve and spiritualist reaction to say that Hagia Sophia is only a place, and that Christians really don't need a specific place of worship as long as they can worship God in spirit and truth.

Hagia Sophia is part of a much larger national, regional and global picture.

Global religion and global Christianity are also made of symbols on the stage of the world, where everything is carefully positioned as in a theatre.

No wonder that places of worship, a stage in themselves, play a particular role in this theatre. It's the theatre of the real, and not of what we would like religion to be.

That is, unless we want to look at the religious experience and religious places in the same way some tourists do, stateless and extraterritorial – unlike the minorities in Turkey, who see in the decree on Hagia Sophia yet another ominous sign of what’s likely to come. ––LCI (https://international. la-croix.com)

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