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Istanbul’s Hagia Sophia Reconverts Into Mosque After 86 Years

The Hagia Sophia is a UNESCO World Heritage Site and a former cathedral of Holy Wisdom in Istanbul. It was founded in 537 under the Byzantine Empire.

For the first time in 86 years, Muslim prayers have been held in Istanbul’s Hagia Sophia—a UNESCO World Heritage Site and a former cathedral that was built in 537 under the direction of the Byzantine emperor Justinian I.

Formerly called the “Church of the Holy Wisdom,” the Hagia Sophia was known to be the biggest building in the world and the largest Christian church. For centuries, the structure had served as the cathedral of the Patriarch of Constantinople—until the Ottoman Empire invaded and captured the city in 1453. 

Under the new empire, the Hagia Sophia was converted into a mosque, and mosaics showing Christian imagery were whitewashed and covered. What used to be a serene and religious place of worship had become a symbol of division among religions. (Read: The 500-Year History of Catholicism in the Philippines)

In 1934, following the fall of the Ottoman Empire which led to the founding of modern Turkey, President Mustafa Kemal Ataturk declared the conversion of the Hagia Sophia into a museum. He also ordered that the mosaics in the building—including those of Jesus Christ, the Virgin Mary, John the Baptist, Justinian I, and the Byzantine Empress Zoe Porphyrogenita—be uncovered to symbolize the then Turkish government’s commitment to a secular republic. 

People visit the Hagia Sophia or Ayasofya, a UNESCO World Heritage Site which was a Byzantine cathedral before it was converted into a mosque and currently a museum, in Istanbul, Turkey, July 2, 2020. (Photo from Murad Sezer / Reuters

Reconversion Into a Mosque

However, just earlier this month, the Hagia Sophia has been once again reconverted back into a mosque. It comes as Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan declared the now 1,500-year-old Hagia Sophia monument open to Muslim worship after a top court ruled that the decision to convert the building into a museum was illegal.

Accompanied by a cabinet minister and other top officials, President Erdogan joined hundred of worshippers inside the Istanbul landmark while large crowds gathered outside. This move was met with much opposition from people around the world, prompting Pope Francis to say that he is “very pained” whenever he thinks of the Hagia Sophia. (Read: Pope Francis stuns crowd as he kneels, kisses South Sudanese leaders’ feet)

Reaction from Religious Leaders

Photos from FSSPX.News, Picasa / United World Project, Serge Serebro / Wikipedia, AP Photo / Daily Sabah, and AP Photo / Michel Euler / The Australian Jewish News – The Times of Israel

Speaking at a service in the Vatican, the Pope departed from his prepared text greeting seafarers and said that as he is thinking of the sea, it “carries me a little farther away in my thoughts: to Istanbul. I think of Hagia Sophia and I am very saddened.” Despite the few words, Pope Francis made it clear that he does not agree with the decision.

A day after the declaration of Hagia Sophia’s reconversion into a mosque, Professor Ioan Sauca, the interim-secretary general of the World Council of Churches, sent President Erdogan a letter expressing “the grief and dismay of the World Council of Churches and of its 350 member churches in more than 110 countries, representing more than half a billion Christians around the world at the step you have just taken. By deciding to convert the Hagia Sophia back to a mosque you have reversed that positive sign of Turkey’s openness and changed it to a sign of exclusion and division.” Prof. Sauca called on the Turkish president “to reconsider and reverse” the decision. (Read: These life lessons will help you welcome change with a positive attitude)

The Church in Russia, home to the world’s largest Orthodox Christian community, has also expressed regret that the Turkish court did not take its concerns into account on its decision on Hagia Sophia.

Greece likewise condemned the decision, while UNESCO’s Director-General Audrey Azoulay emphasized the importance of the Hagia Sophia as a “symbol for dialogue.”

“Hagia Sophia is an architectural masterpiece and a unique testimony to interactions between Europe and Asia over the centuries,” said Azoulay. “Its status as a museum reflects the universal nature of its heritage, and makes it a powerful symbol for dialogue.”

Azoulay says that the UNESCO’s World Heritage Committee will review the monument’s status.

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