LAHORE: Christians all over the world, including Pakistan, have been pained by Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan’s announcement to turn the celebrated Hagia Sophia into a mosque and the Pakistani government should use its influence to bridge the inter-faith differences that have been caused by this decision.
In a press statement, National Council of Churches in Pakistan (NCCP) President and Diocese of Raiwind Bishop Dr Azad Marshall said the Turkish move to convert the Hagia Sophia – that was built 1,500 years ago as an Orthodox Christian cathedral but was converted into a mosque after the Ottoman conquest in 1453 – would sow division.
The UNESCO World Heritage site in Istanbul has been a museum since 1934 on the orders of Mustafa Kemal Ataturk, the founding father of modern, secular Turkey. On July 10, Turkish President Erdogan announced that the first Muslim prayers would be held inside the building on July 24, after the country’s top administrative court annulled the site’s museum status.
Dr Marshall said that though several countries and all international church bodies, including the World Council of Churches, the Vatican, the Eastern Orthodox Church and the Church in Russia, have urged President Erdogan to reverse his decision in the larger interest of inter-faith harmony, he would like to propose that the Hagia Sophia be opened for worship for both Muslims and Christians on Friday and Sunday, respectively, while it should remain accessible to all visitors for the rest of the week.
“We believe that this is a workable solution and would help in promoting mutual understanding, respect, dialogue and cooperation,” he said.
He added that the Pakistani church leadership hoped that the government of Pakistan would convey their concerns to the Turkish leadership and play its due role in fomenting inter-faith harmony.
Hagia Sophia’s complex history began in the year 537 when Byzantine emperor Justinian built the huge church overlooking the Golden Horn harbor. With its huge dome, it was believed to be the world’s largest church and building. It remained in Byzantine hands for centuries apart from a brief moment in 1204 when Crusaders raided the city.
In 1453, in a devastating blow to the Byzantines, Ottoman Sultan Mehmed II captured Istanbul (formerly known as Constantinople) and the victorious conqueror performed Friday prayers inside Hagia Sophia.
The Ottomans soon converted the building into a mosque, adding four minarets to the exterior and covering ornate Christian icons and gold mosaics with panels of Arabic religious calligraphy.
After centuries at the heart of the Muslim Ottoman empire, it was turned into a museum in 1934 in a drive to make Turkey more secular.
Today Hagia Sophia is Turkey’s most popular tourist site, attracting more than 3.7 million visitors a year.