October 6, 2010

Islamic Research Center Head Disturbed Hagia Sophia Is Closed To Worshippers

October 5, 2010
Today's Zaman

The head of the İstanbul-based Islamic Research Center (İSAM), Professor Mehmet Akif Aydın, has suggested that Aya Sofya (Hagia Sophia) be opened to Muslim worshippers on weekdays and to Christians on Sunday. A former Byzantine church and then Ottoman mosque in İstanbul, Aya Sofya is currently open as a museum.

Aydın said that as a Muslim he is disturbed to see that Aya Sofya is still closed to worshippers. “I believe the continuation of the culture of coexistence at Aya Sofya, which I hope will improve in Turkey, is more important and acceptable than its remaining as a museum. I’d like it, as a Muslim, to become a mosque. But if Aya Sofya is supposed to be opened to Muslim worshippers on weekdays, then it should be opened to Christians on Sunday. Aya Sofya was built as a place of worship. It served people in this way for more than a thousand years, both as a church and mosque. It is neither a church nor a mosque now. It disturbs me to see that Aya Sofya has become a museum and a tourist destination,” he added in an exclusive interview with the Zaman daily.

The Culture and Tourism Ministry has been under growing criticism both in Turkey and abroad for not allowing worshippers inside Aya Sofya. Aydın also said Aya Sofya would stand as the first example of religions coexisting in one space if his proposal is realized.

“I think it would be better for Aya Sofya to be a place of worship for the two religions rather than remaining a secular museum. If we can re-open a church in Van why not open Aya Sofya to worship? This would contribute to the willingness of Muslims and Christians to coexist,” he noted.

The Armenian Church of the Holy Cross on the island of Akdamar in the eastern province of Van hosted a historic service on Sept. 19, a first in 100 years. Similarly, a historic mass at the Sümela Monastery in the Black Sea coastal province of Trabzon -- a first in republican history -- was marked by peace in mid-August. Aydın had high praise for the re-opening of Akdamar for religious services.

“I’d never want a church, which has a congregation, to remain in ruins or as a museum. For this reason, I believe the re-opening of Akdamar for religious services was an extremely positive decision. This has shown that Turkey is re-gaining its historic disposition. It is once again accepting coexistence with other religions,” he noted, adding that Akdamar could be permanently open for religious services. The Akdamar service was marked by a controversy over the placement of a cross, which emerged after Turkish authorities failed to erect a cross on top of the church by the day of the service; the cross was installed on the church on Sunday. Aydın expressed hope that a growing tolerance between nations and religions will become more pronounced in the years to come.

No obstacle to re-opening of Greek Seminary

In response to a question about whether the Greek Orthodox Seminary on Heybeliada should be re-opened, Aydın said, “There is no obstacle to its being re-opened.” The seminary was closed to new students in 1971 under a law that put religious and military training under state control. There have been growing calls on the Justice and Development Party (AK Party) government to re-open the seminary.

According to Aydın, Turks lost their “culture” of coexistence with Christians in the early years of the republic because the republic did not act in a secular way toward Christians. “In this sense, the republic was a bit ‘Islamist’ towards them,” he said. “We can learn to coexist with other religions and faiths if we allow all circles in Turkey, let them be Muslims, non-Muslims, Sunnis, Alevis and followers of other religions, to learn about their own faiths and see that every member of a faith group learns and lives his faith without fears and reservations,” Aydın added.