Hagia Sophia

Hey AP: St. Nicholas Orthodox Church at 9/11 ground zero will be 'flanked by towers'?

Hey AP: St. Nicholas Orthodox Church at 9/11 ground zero will be 'flanked by towers'?

I think about 9/11 every day, during my weeks in New York City teaching at The King's College in lower Manhattan.

There's a logical reason. When in New York, I live in a residence hotel next to ground zero. Each morning I walk around the edge of the park containing the footprints of the World Trade Center towers. That includes St. Nicholas Greek Orthodox Church, which is being rebuilt close to its original location 250 feet from the corner of the south tower.

At night, I often go a block or two out of my way to check out the construction. I started writing about the fate of this church -- the only house of worship destroyed on 9/11 -- two weeks after the towers fell. As an Orthodox Christian, I find one detail of the church's destruction especially haunting.

Orthodox believers want to search in the two-story mound of debris for the remains of three loved ones who died long ago -- the relics of St. Nicholas, St. Katherine and St. Sava. Small pieces of their skeletons were kept in a gold-plated box marked with an image of Christ. This ossuary was stored in a 700-pound, fireproof safe.
"We do not think it could have burned. But perhaps it was crushed," said Father [John] Romas. "Who knows? All we can do is wait and pray."

The safe was never found (click here for a 2014 update). How do you burn cast iron?

I was glad to pick up my newspaper here in Oak Ridge, Tenn., and see that the Associated Press, in its advance story for this 9/11 anniversary, focused on the construction of the new St. Nicholas National Shrine at the World Trade Center. It's a pretty solid story, yet it contains one or two details that need clarification.

In one case, I am sure the Orthodox would appreciate a correction. Will the new shrine have towers like the current Hagia Sophia? Here is the overture:

NEW YORK -- A Greek Orthodox church taking shape next to the World Trade Center memorial plaza will glow at night like a marble beacon when it opens sometime next year. It also will mark another step in the long rebuilding of New York’s ground zero.

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Hagia Sophia evolving into mosque? The Los Angeles Times omits crucial Christian voices

Hagia Sophia evolving into mosque? The Los Angeles Times omits crucial Christian voices

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 topic that will be of special 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.

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What happened in Turkey? Look for two words -- 'secular' and 'Ataturk' -- in news reports

What happened in Turkey? Look for two words -- 'secular' and 'Ataturk' -- in news reports

So what was the attempted coup in Turkey all about? It seems pretty clear at this point that no one really knows (or they are not saying). Were experts at the White House and the U.S. state department really flying blind on this one, as appeared to have been the case?

I'm no expert on Turkish history in the 20th century, but I have been to Istanbul twice and heard the local experts explain that nation's unique standing as a "secular" Muslim state. In recent years, Turkey has been swinging in the direction of some form of Islamist regime, under the leadership of President (some would say "strongman") Recep Tayyip Erdogan.

During the modern era, the Turkish military -- with strong ties to the West -- have acted as defenders of the secular state, using blunt power to crush attempts to move toward any form of Islamist rule. Is that what happened this time? Or did some rebel group within the military actually try to take Turkey in a more radically religious direction? That would be a stunning development in a nation under pressure -- in the form of terrorism, at the very least -- from the Islamic State and its supporters.

Read the coverage. Do the experts not know the answer to this question or they are not saying?

As you read, look for two words -- "secular" and "Ataturk." How far did you have to read to hit those crucial terms?

We are, of course, talking about Mustafa Kemal Ataturk, not the airport named in his honor. Here is the opening of a History Channel biography on this giant in modern Turkish history.

Mustafa Kemal Atatürk (1881-1938) was an army officer who founded an independent Republic of Turkey out of the ruins of the Ottoman Empire. He then served as Turkey’s first president from 1923 until his death in 1938, implementing reforms that rapidly secularized and westernized the country. Under his leadership, the role of Islam in public life shrank drastically, European-style law codes came into being, the office of the sultan was abolished and new language and dress requirements were mandated. But although the country was nominally democratic, Atatürk at times stifled opposition with an authoritarian hand.

That opposition Ataturk and then his followers kept crushing?

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Mirror-image news, again: Concerning those Ramadan prayers inside Hagia Sophia

Mirror-image news, again: Concerning those Ramadan prayers inside Hagia Sophia

It's time, once again, to take a mirror-image look at a story (click here for some earlier examples) that is in the news right now.

Well, it's sort of in the news. That's the whole point of this post.

Let's imagine that during a symbolic moment on the calendar -- perhaps a papal visit to Turkey, or the days leading up to a historic Pan-Orthodox Council -- a Christian leader entered the great Hagia Sophia in Istanbul and took out a prayer book and began chanting the ancient prayers of Great Vespers in Greek or even Arabic.

Turkish officials would be infuriated. Muslim leaders would be outraged. After all, this would violate agreements surrounding the status of this massive building -- once the greatest cathedral in Christendom, then a mosque after the fall of Constantinople -- as neutral territory, as a secular museum and a UNESCO world heritage site.

This would, in short, be a major news story and a threat to shatter Muslim-majority Turkey's status -- in the eyes of Europe, especially -- as a secular state that is dedicated to some protection for religious minorities.

Would this draw mainstream media coverage?

Now the mirror-image story, care of The Turkish Sun:

An angry war of words has broken out between Turkey and Greece after Athens protested a decision to allow a daily Quranic reading in İstanbul’s famous Hagia Sophia during Ramadan. The museum was for almost 1,000 years the biggest Greek Orthodox Christian church in the world.
The sahur, or pre-dawn meal, is to be broadcast each morning from the Hagia Sophia by Turkish national broadcaster TRT Diyanet along with daily readings from the Quran during the Islamic holy month, which began on Monday (June 6).
In one of the toughest diplomatic rebukes from Athens to Ankara in recent years, the Greek foreign ministry called the decision to allow the religious readings at the world heritage site, which is officially designated as a museum, “regressive”, “verging on bigotry” and “not compatible with modern, democratic and secular societies”.

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Sibling rivalries, religious conflict and another potential hotspot in need of media attention

Sibling rivalries, religious conflict and another potential hotspot in need of media attention

Afavorite journalistic perk of mine was getting on think-tank mailing lists for panel discussions and in-depth interviews involving leading thinkers on subjects in which I am interested.  

For an hour or more you get to hear acknowledged top experts who are tough, if not near impossible, to get to respond to your calls, emails, texts or whatever. And when they do, all you are likely to   get is a brief exchange -- unless you have a special relationship with them or you work for an elite news outlet.

The background information or on-the-record quotes gleaned from such encounters can be invaluable. Plus it often comes with a free sandwich and beverage, or a full meal if you score the right mailing lists.

Thanks to the Web, you no longer have to leave you office, or home, to partake of these events, which are now available to anyone with an Internet connection. That's another big plus, even if I now have to make my own sandwich.

One recent interview, followed by an audience Q&A, I watched online featured Rabbi (and British) Lord Jonathan Sacks, for 22 years the United Kingdom's chief Modern Orthodox rabbi. He left that position in 2013 and now teaches at universities in New York and the UK, when not traveling the world as an esteemed religious leader and philosopher.

The exchange took place before a Council on Foreign Relations audience in New York. Click here to watch the entire 72-minute event.

The subject was 21st Century religious violence -- to my mind the most consequential religion and international story of the moment.

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Got news? Did Erdogan lead prayers in Hagia Sophia or not?

Eastern Orthodox Christians who follow events in the ancient homelands of the Eastern church have had May 29th marked on their calendars for several weeks now. Why is that? Because of the following news, or potential news (this particular story is care of a mainstream news site in Finland). Note the time element at the end of this passage:

Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan’s government plans to turn Istanbul’s Hagia Sofia Basilica into a mosque in the afternoon and evening and a museum in the morning.

The historical monument, which draws millions of tourists every year, will have the Byzantine frescoes covering its walls cast into shadow by “dark light” so as to avoid offending Islam. The government would thus like to turn what is today seen as a symbol of Christianity back into a place of worship for Muslims, as it was after the Ottoman conquest of Constantinople in 1453.

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RNS: It's no rumor; Turks want Hagia Sophia as a mosque

I just did a quick search in my email files and it appears that I started receiving alerts about the following story in 2007 — all linked to appeals for Eastern Orthodox Christians to sign petitions opposing Turkish efforts to turn the iconic Hagia Sophia back into a mosque.

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