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August 28, 2010

An Ecumenical Hagia Sophia?

Let’s Just Reopen Hagia Sophia as Church/Mosque

Mustafa Akyol
August 27, 2010
Hurriyet Daily News

The museumization of places of worship used to happen in communist dictatorships such as the Soviet Union. Turkey should not follow that bad example — at least anymore.

If I were on a jury to choose the best opinion leader in contemporary Turkey, I would probably vote for Dr. Ali Bardakoğlu, the top official cleric in the country. For the erudite theologian does not only represent an Islam with a smiling face. He also defends religious freedom for all.

In fact, the institution he heads, the Directorate of Religious Affairs, is an odd one: Since Turkey claims to be a “secular state,” it actually should not have such an official ministry for religion. But most official concepts in Turkey have self-styled meanings that are different from their universal definitions, and “secularism” is no exception. Here, the term means not the separation of state and religion, but the dominance of the former over the latter.

A golden era

But the ideal nature of Turkish secularism is not what I want to discuss today. The reality is that we have had the Directorate of Religious Affairs since 1924, the year the caliphate was abolished. Another reality is that the institution has been quite a boring and uninspiring one throughout the 20th century. Only in 2003, when the newly elected Justice and Development Party, or AKP, government appointed Dr. Bardakoğlu as its president, did the institution enter into a golden era.

The change was not just in the growing influence and the visibility of the Directorate of Religious Affairs. It was also in the liberal positions that Dr. Bardakoğlu took on a number of issues. In 2004, he spoke about the need for “updating our religious understanding,” according to changing times. The next year, for the first time in Islamic history, he appointed two women as counselors for mosques in Istanbul and Kayseri.

In 2006 Bardakoğlu made the news with another statement: “There cannot be a hadith which says ‘the best women are those who are like sheep.’” This was an introduction to a project going on in the Directorate of Religious Affairs for a while to create a new collection of hadiths (prophetic sayings) that would exclude some of misogynistic statements in the classical literature, or to put them into their right contexts. (The project is still going on, and will reportedly be done toward the end of this year.)

In April 2007, something terrible happened in Turkey: Three Christian missionaries were brutally murdered by a group of Turkish ultra-nationalists in the eastern city of Malatya. In a press conference, Bardakoğlu not only denounced the murderers but also said: “It is their [the missionaries’] natural right to preach their faith. We must learn to respect even the personal choice of an atheist, let alone other religions.”

This week, Bardakoğlu took another good step, by congratulating the Christian mass in the Sümela Monastry, which had been closed for 88 years. He said this was not enough, and that other churches that have been turned into “museums,” such as the St. Paul Church in Tarsus, should be reopened to Christian services as well.

I could not agree more. This whole “museumization” of places of worship is actually quite disturbing. Such things used to happen in communist dictatorships such as the Soviet Union, which is, fortunately, in the dustbin of history now. Turkey should not follow that bad example — at least anymore.

When we speak about places of worship that were turned into museums, it is impossible to overlook the greatest of all, the Hagia Sophia. And this week Bardakoğlu spoke about re-opening this 16-century-old masterpiece to worship as well. But it was not clear to me what form of worship he meant.

This is a place, after all, which is sacred for both Christians and Muslims. It served Christians from 360, when it was built by the Byzantine Emperor Constantine II, to 1453, when Constantinople was conquered by the Ottomans. The latter converted Hagia Sophia into a mosque, and it served Muslims from then to 1935, when Atatürk turned the building into a museum.

Ecumenical Hagia Sophia

Therefore, whatever your opinion on the conversion of Hagia Sophia from a cathedral to a mosque might be, you have to see that the building has a history with both religions. It is also true that both Christians and Muslims would love to have it back. So, one is inevitably forced to ask, which religion should have it?

My answer is that both should have it. The magnificent temple, in other words, should be shared by Christians and Muslims, both with regards to space and time.

For Islam, this is not something unheard of. The Grand Umayyad Mosque of Damascus was shared by Muslims and Christians for a period in the early seventh century. If we do that again in Turkey in the 21st century, we will be accomplishing something great — not just for both faiths, but also the fate of the world.

I made this suggestion a few years ago in a Turkish piece, and received both support and anger from readers. (Support came from theologically-driven Muslims and anger from the nationalism-driven ones.) It showed me that such a Christo-Muslim Hagia Sophia would be difficult, but not impossible to achieve.

If Dr. Bardakoğlu promotes such an ecumenical reopening of the great shrine, it might become a bit more plausible. I am sure he would be sympathetic to the idea. I even feel that he has the guts for it.