Turkish Court Will Soon Decide if Ancient Church the Hagia Sophia Can Become a Mosque

After 85 years as a museum, the Hagia Sophia is poised to once again become a mosque. Might it also again become a church?

A Turkish court is scheduled to rule on July 2 if the iconic Byzantine basilica can be opened for Muslim worship.

Built in 537 by Emperor Justinian, in 1453 the Ottoman sultan Mehmet II converted the Hagia Sophia into a mosque. Five centuries later, the secularizing founder of modern Turkey, Kamal Ataturk, turned it into a museum.

UNESCO designated the Hagia Sophia as a World Heritage Site in 1985.

President Recep Erdogan has long stated his desire that the building would welcome prayer. In March, he led guests in silent Quranic recitation on the 567th anniversary of the conquest of Constantinople, dedicating the prayer to Mehmet II.

Last week, Erdogan found an unlikely supporter.

“I believe that believers’ praying suits better the spirit of the temple than curious tourists running around to take pictures,” tweeted Armenian Patriarch Sahak II, resident in Istanbul.

“The site is large enough to allocate a space for Christians, [so that] the world can applaud our religious peace and maturity.”

The Armenian Apostolic Orthodox Church represents the largest Christian community remaining in Turkey, with an estimated 90,000 members. The Hagia Sophia used to serve as the cathedral for the Greek Orthodox Church, whose members have dwindled to an estimated 2,500.

Ecumenical Patriarch Bartholomew I, also resident in Istanbul, expressed his concern over the possible conversion.

“Instead of uniting, a 1,500-year-old heritage is dividing us,” said the Greek patriarch, who leads 300 million Orthodox worldwide.

“I am saddened and shaken.”

Condemnation also came from UNESCOGreece, and the US ambassador-at-large for religious freedom.

“The Hagia Sophia holds enormous spiritual and cultural significance to billions of believers of different faiths around the world,” tweeted Sam Brownback.

“We call on the government of Turkey to maintain it as a UNESCO World Heritage site … in its current status as a museum.”

Turkey rebutted the criticism, stating the decision is a domestic issue with Turkish jurisdiction alone. A recent poll found 73 percent of Turks favor transforming the museum into a mosque.

Sahak II, whose election was covered by CT last December, wondered if his proposal to open the Hagia Sophia also as a church was “too utopian.”

But perhaps it would reduce the rancor.

“Enter the temple, breathe silence and learn from it,” tweeted the 85th Armenian patriarch of Constantinople.

“Hagia Sophia will advise you that there was nothing more valuable than peace.”

Turkish courts have also returned repurposed museums to their original status as churches, including the St. Paul’s Church in Tarsus in 2010. And in 2015, the 16,000 member Jewish community in Turkey was permitted to hold Hanukkah services for the first time.

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Source: Christianity Today