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Hagia Sophia: Religious and political leaders are missing their own chances to right historical wrongs

July 13, 2020 at 9:02 pm

A general view of Hagia Sophia in Istanbul, Turkey, 1 July 2020 [Flickr]

Apparently Pope Francis, the leader of the Roman Catholic Church, is “very distressed” by the decision to revert the Byzantine-era Hagia Sophia into a mosque; it has been a museum since 1934. He made his views known in the latest edition of the Vatican newspaper L’Osservatore Romano.

Quite why he and a whole host of other voices of faith and no faith from various quarters around the world are distressed is beyond me. I imagine the Hagia Sophia, originally built as a cathedral serving the Christian Byzantine Empire, will continue to be a major tourist draw for visitors heading to Istanbul regardless of its status.

Given the fate of numerous other places of worship, I wonder if the criticism has more to do with politics than prayer. Turkey’s President Recep Tayyip Erdogan is a polarising figure among world leaders, but he is more or less adored across the Sunni Muslim world for his defence of Muslims and Islam. Seemingly unafraid of upsetting those in power in Europe, Washington, Moscow, Beijing and elsewhere Erdogan has been highly critical of the treatment of refugees. His support doesn’t vary, whether they’re Palestinians, Rohingya, Kashmiris, Uighurs, Syrians, Iraqis, Yemenis, Afghans, Libyans or others caught up in conflict zones and humanitarian disasters. This doesn’t enhance his popularity in world capitals.

READ: Turkey overruled ‘radical decision’ that made Hagia Sophia a museum

Turkey’s military interventions in Syria and Libya have also rattled a whole bunch of presidents and rulers, some of whom are NATO allies and others who are fellow Muslims. Erdogan’s decision to buy military hardware from Russia clearly upset the Americans as well as NATO.

The championing of the vulnerable, infirm, orphans and widows was once the domain of religious leaders, but the truth is that today’s figures of faith rarely enjoy the adulation given so freely to Erdogan. There’s also another inconvenient truth: many people of faith feel abandoned by their spiritual leaders, which is why congregations are on the wane around the world.

I would have thought Pope Francis would be far more distressed by the fact that across America and Europe, for instance, hundreds of churches have been abandoned, demolished or sold off. Maybe he doesn’t want to draw attention to the failure of the Roman Catholic Church to protect its flock in the wake of the hugely damaging paedophile priest scandals.

A general view inside Hagia Sophia in Istanbul, Turkey, 1 July 2020 [Flickr]

A general view inside Hagia Sophia in Istanbul, Turkey, 1 July 2020 [Flickr]

Try as I might, I don’t recall any religious leaders, historical bodies, building preservationists or heritage protectors crying out in protest when the 13th century Al-Ahmar (Red) Mosque in Safad was turned in to a nightspot for Israeli revellers. In fact, before it became a drinking den it was a Jewish seminary and then transformed into an election campaign office used by the Kadima Party — founded by the late unlamented Ariel Sharon and Tzipi Livni — before becoming a boutique.

Last year, a Nazareth court in Israel received a lawsuit filed by Khair Tabari, the secretary of a Palestinian Islamic religious endowment (Waqf) agency, requesting the handover of Al-Ahmar Mosque. “I felt dizzy when I noticed the vandalism inside the mosque, as can be seen by the remains of Qur’anic verses which were removed from the pulpit and replaced by the Ten Commandments in Hebrew,” Tabari told London-based Al-Quds Al-Arabi. Many other historical mosques have been bombed, bulldozed or desecrated by Israel since 1948 with little or no protest from the international community.

When US President Donald Trump “handed over” the occupied Syrian Golan Heights to Israel in 2018, although there was condemnation from the UN but its protests soon petered out, and the ghost town of Quneitra failed to get a mention. Back in May 2001, the then Roman Catholic Pope John Paul II prayed in the bombed out shell of a church there.

OPINION: Hagia Sophia reconnects modern Turkey with the legacy of the Ottomans

It was the third day of a historic visit to Syria and the Pope prayed in one of the few buildings left standing after the Israelis pulled back in 1974. They dynamited most of the town they’d occupied for seven years as they left. When I visited in 2010 I could clearly see Israeli radar antennae and military forces on the hills overlooking Quneitra. Pope John Paul’s service was inside the ruins of the Greek Orthodox Church in what was the most politically sensitive stop of his pilgrimage to Christian sites in Syria. Nevertheless, he refrained from criticising the deliberate destruction and the defilement of the graves by retreating Israeli soldiers, all of which was witnessed by journalists.

The Pope was retracing the footsteps of St Paul, who converted to Christianity famously “on the road to Damascus”. His visit to Syria also focussed on reconciliation between Christians and Muslims, which was cemented by the first visit of any pontiff to a Muslim place of worship when he went to the Umayyad Mosque in Damascus, wherein the tomb of St John the Baptist lies.

Former President of Turkey, Mustafa Kemal Ataturk

We can’t know for certain, of course, but I believe that Pope John Paul II would have shown more understanding of the Turkish President’s announcement on Friday that Muslim prayers would begin on 24 July at the Hagia Sophia UNESCO world heritage site. From a legal perspective, of course, Erdogan’s edict was merely cancelling an illegal decision by the 1934 Turkish government led by modern Turkey’s secularising founder, Mustafa Kemal Ataturk.

The decision to preserve the church-turned-mosque as a museum had no legitimacy since the Hagia Sophia building and land was protected by a Waqf established by Sultan Mehmet II back in 1453. The original deed confirming this is still in the archives in Ankara. The wealthy Ottoman leader and conqueror of Constantinople, as it was known then, bought the building from the Christian authorities of the day.

READ: UNESCO says World Heritage Committee to review Hagia Sophia

Among those claiming to be outraged by Erdogan’s move are the Greek authorities, which are obviously well practised in destroying Ottoman era mosques and religious monuments given the hundreds which have been destroyed in the years following the declaration of Greek independence in the 19th century. Historic Ottoman buildings have been converted into military prisons, cinemas, offices, hostels and warehouses, while countless mosques were closed to worship and, yes, were converted into churches.

Russia has also condemned Erdogan for being divisive and bringing nations in to direct “collision”. That’s interesting terminology from a country which is propping up the genocidal dictator Bashar Al-Assad in a civil war which has seen half the Syrian population displaced and hundreds of thousands killed. Moscow’s behaviour on the international stage in terms of the annexation of Crimea and military support for renegade Field Marshal Khalifa Haftar in Libya, as well as Assad in Syria; its meddling in Western elections; and the Salisbury poisoning and Litvinenko murder all serve to expose Russia’s hypocrisy.

Arguably the biggest display of double standards, though, has come from UNESCO, which has the arrogance to say that the World Heritage Committee “will review Hagia Sophia’s status” as a World Heritage Site. I don’t recall the UN body jumping up and down when Israeli soldiers took potshots at the Church of the Nativity in Bethlehem when a group of Palestinians sought sanctuary inside in 2002. There were no words of condemnation from the Church of England either, although Pope John Paul II did express some concern.

Church of Nativity in Bethlehem

Church of the Nativity [File photo]

On a point of interest it is worth mentioning that both Israel and America (the latter has spent more time and energy preserving Iraq’s oil installations than world heritage sites) both announced in 2017 that they were pulling out of UNESCO.

In his own article on this issue, MEMO’s correspondent in the Gaza Strip, Motasem A Dalloul, expressed his concern for Al-Aqsa Mosque in occupied Jerusalem and asked why Israel is allowed to get away with the Judaisation of Islam’s third holiest site and other Christian and Muslim sanctities. He reserved his strongest criticism for the fact that the Great Mosque in Cordoba remains a cathedral as, indeed, does the Mosque in Seville.

OPINION: The court ruling has overturned a historic injustice; Hagia Sophia was already a mosque

“If the world really does care about changes to historic places of worship,” wrote Dalloul, “then perhaps it should turn its attention to Cordoba, for example, where the great mosque in Spain was turned into a cathedral after the Christian conquest in 1492. Many other examples exist of churches which were once mosques; the shape of the bricked-up windows is a giveaway. Justice based on facts is needed around the world today, and the simple fact is that Hagia Sophia was purchased from the Christian authorities before being used as a mosque; it was not taken from them by force.”

Before spiritual leaders and opportunistic politicians try to boost their self-serving agendas, Turkey’s decision about Hagia Sophia should be seen for what it is: an opportunity to right a historical wrong. Rather than criticising Erdogan, perhaps they should emulate him in their own backyards and take steps to put right what their forefathers did wrong, or at least consider reparations, as has been suggested by the Black Lives Matter movement and others. Putting politics before prayers is never a good idea for people who know little about religion — Pope Francis excepted — and even less about their own history.

The views expressed in this article belong to the author and do not necessarily reflect the editorial policy of Middle East Monitor.