This past Sunday, I was at a lunch in Seattle that included someone who runs a retreat center in Turkey. She knew of only 4,000 evangelical Christians like her in the country, which under the government of President Recep Tayyip Erdogan has been encroaching on the religious freedom of non-Muslims for some time.
Evangelical Protestants are one of the smaller groups among Turkey’s 160,000 Christians, most of them Orthodox Christians linked to the city's history as a crossroads in the early church. The Christian community that was, in 1914, 19 percent of Turkey’s population is now a tiny group amidst 80 million Turkish Muslims.
So I was interested to read a Los Angeles Times story about the increasing pressure by Islamic activists to turn the Hagia Sophia back into a mosque. We've covered this before but the volume has been amped up.
So what is missing in this report on a subject that will be of interest to Christians, as well as Muslims, around the world? Want to guess?
As the time for afternoon prayers approaches, Onder Soy puts on a white robe and cap and switches on the microphone in a small 19th century room adjoining the Hagia Sophia.
Soon, Soy’s melodic call to prayer rings out over a square filled with tourists hurrying to visit some of Turkey’s most famous historical sights before they close for the day.
The room Soy is in -- built as a resting place for the sultan and now officially called the Hagia Sophia mosque -- fills up with around 40 worshipers, drawn not by the modestly decorated space itself, but by the ancient building it shares a wall with.
Built by the Byzantine Emperor Justinian I in AD 537, the Hagia Sophia was originally a Greek Orthodox basilica and one of the most important churches in all of Christendom. It became a mosque in 1453 after the Ottoman Empire defeated the Byzantines and took over Constantinople.
I’ve been in Hagia Sophia and it seemed cavernous and empty to me, as though removed from its original purpose. The Blue Mosque next door was far more welcoming.
With the birth of a secular Turkish Republic, the Hagia Sophia became a museum in 1935, meant to highlight the shared legacy of the space for the world’s two largest religions. But, eight decades later, the fate of this building still tugs at the hearts of Muslims and Christians alike.
In October, Turkey’s Directorate of Religious Affairs appointed Soy as the full-time imam for the room adjoining the Hagia Sophia, a space that opened in 1992 but was previously only meant for workers in the area to use for prayers.
Five times a day now, Soy’s voice rings out, not just as a call to daily prayer, but also as an audible reminder for many Muslims in Turkey that their long-held dream of worshiping inside the Hagia Sophia may become a reality.
This June, three separate groups led marches to the museum calling for its opening as a mosque. One group began a campaign asking people to remove their shoes before they enter the building, just as they would when entering a mosque.
The article then goes into a history of the building, starting with the 9th-century mosaics depicting the Virgin Mary and the archangel Gabriel.
Finally, 32 paragraphs into the story, the writer had one sentence stating that the Greek government and the Greek Orthodox Church (which was caretaker of the Hagia Sofia centuries before Islam was founded) strongly objected to the idea of the building becoming a mosque.
You heard me right: One sentence.
Then the writer explains that President Erdogan has been dragging his feet on the whole idea of converting the museum to mosque. The article doesn’t explain this, but the international outcry would be tremendous if Erdogan allowed such a move.
Not that Erdogan hasn’t taken over churches elsewhere. In mainly Kurdish-occupied Diyarbakir, Turkey took over six churches last year, making them state property, to the alarm of the Christians involved. They feel the appropriation of the churches and 6,300 plots of land in Diyarbakir is a violation of international law and that similar tactics were employed by the government before the 1915 genocide of Armenians in eastern Turkey, where Diyarbakir sits.
As Newsweek explained earlier, a conversion of the Hagia Sophia back into a mosque would showcase Turkey’s turn from the West toward being an Islamic republic. This is a state of affairs that would cause Kamal Attaturk, the founder of modern-day secular Turkey, to turn over in his grave. It’s understandable that any Turkish president would hesitate to make such a move.
I’m curious why the reporter didn’t make a stronger case for Orthodox use of the basilica, as did the Newsweek piece, which quoted Bartholomew I, ecumenical patriarch of Constantinople, as Istanbul was once known.
If the building is converted to anything, it must be returned to its original Christian status, the ecumenical patriarch said. And if it was, that is where his cathedral would be. But even the patriarch knows that such a move would be impossible in the present political climate.
I understand the need for journalists to cover the increasing calls for the Hagia Sophia to be further Islamicized. This sanctuary is a symbol to Muslims of how their armies overtook Constantinople on May 29, 1453, as well as their ultimate hopes for Islam's defeat of Christianity. But these kinds of stories need to give more space to the views of the Orthodox, whose church it was before it was ripped from them more than 550 years ago. Interviewing secular Turks would help, as well.
This Smithsonian piece does a much better job of explaining how the “Taj Mahal of Turkey” symbolizes such different things to different people. The Los Angeles Times -- and other media -- should keep that in mind when reporting on this treasure. When you're describing a diamond, highlighting only one facet diminishes the jewel.