By Fr. Benedict Mayaki, SJ
The Conference of European Churches (CEC) has expressed its dismay at the decision last Friday by Turkish President, Tayyip Erdogan to convert Hagia Sophia into a mosque.
The ecumenical organization, representing 114 member churches in Europe, many of them Orthodox churches, made its concerns known in letters sent Wednesday to the European Commission and the United Nations Educational Scientific and Cultural Organization (UNESCO).
In the letter to the High Representative of the European Commission, Josep Borrell Fontelles, the CEC noted that the recent decision - which is “motivated by a petition to the Turkish Court” and supported by the Turkish president’s office - questions “the validity of the presidential decree from 1934.”
At the same time, “such an action would potentially create fertile ground for religious hatred and subsequent violence,” the CEC letter stated.
In a separate letter to the Director-General of UNESCO, Audrey Azoulay, and the Director of the World Heritage Center of UNESCO, Mechtild Rössler, the CEC urged the international body to “undertake concrete action vis-à-vis the Turkish government in order to prevent the change of status of the existing world heritage site.”
In the same vein, CEC President, Rev. Christian Kriegler reiterated the CEC’s warning that this move could invoke grounds for religious intolerance and violence, adding that he had previously raised concerns with UNESCO and the European Institutions to “seek diplomatic influence preventing such an action.”
Symbol of peaceful coexistence
CEC Vice President, Metropolitan Cleopas of Sweden, said that “in its status as a museum, Hagia Sophia brings together people and cultures from all over the world.”
Expressing concern, he pointed out that a change in its status diminishes its “legacy as a universally accessible bridge uniting East and West, symbolizing the peaceful coexistence, mutual understanding, and solidarity between diverse people.”
“We consider it inappropriate and harmful, in the 21st century, for Hagia Sophia, which is dedicated to God’s Holy Wisdom and enables the faithful of both religions to meet and marvel at its grandeur, to become the cause of confrontations and conflicts,” added Metropolitan Cleopas, echoing the words of Ecumenical Patriarch Bartholomew.
“In the spirit of Hagia Sophia’s name, which literally translates to Holy Wisdom, we pray that wisdom and reason will ultimately prevail and Hagia Sophia will continue to operate under its status as a museum.”
All member churches affected
CEC General Secretary, Jørgen Skov Sørensen, said that the recent developments reminded him of St. Paul’s letter to the Corinthians: “If one member suffers, all suffer together with it; if one member is honored, all rejoice together with it. (1 Corinthians 12:26)
He points out that “this decision impacts churches that are directly affected.” However, “all CEC member churches are disturbed by what we witness in Istanbul these days.”
Originally constructed as a cathedral in the Byzantine Empire, the church was turned into a mosque after the Ottomans conquered Constantinople in 1453.
However, in 1934, Turkish leader Mustafa Kemal Ataturk decreed that it be turned into a museum. It has since then been a tourist magnet for millions of people every year, and is widely regarded as a symbol of religious coexistence.
Hagia Sophia is a UNESCO world heritage site in Istanbul.
In last Friday’s decision, the Turkish government annulled its museum status and invalidated the 1934 decree.