The first great basilica in the Christian world wasn’t St. Peter’s, but the Hagia Sophia in what used to be Constantinople. It has been continuous use since 537, being transformed into the Ottoman Imperial Mosque after New Rome was conquered in 1453. It remained a mosque until 1935 when Ataturk turned it into a museum as part of his secularization of Turkey.
Now, Turkey’s Islamist government is threatening to revert Hagia Sophia back into a mosque. Over at First Things, I protest. Not only is the history of the magnificent edifice important to Christians, but as a “neutral” museum containing elements of both its Christian and Muslim history, it represents an increasingly rare hope of coexistence.
Istanbul is full of mosques. The magnificent Blue Mosque is just a short walk from Hagia Sophia. Restricting access to HG, and requiring shoes to be removed etc. because it would be a mosque, would be a blow against Istanbul’s crucial tourist industry. So why do it? From my piece:
I can only think of one reason: As a shout of Islamic triumphalism. What a mistake that would be. Christians would rightly consider it an intentional insult. The international community would see it as an open rejection of its diversity agenda. Moreover, I think that a relatively secular Turkey acting so radically would demonstrate to the world that despite moderate Muslims’ many assurances to the contrary, contemporary Islam is intolerant in outlook, belligerent toward non-believers, and dangerously hegemonist in its intentions.
Hagia Sophia anchors Istanbul’s “World Heritage Site,” deemed by UNESCO to be of “Outstanding Universal Value.” Muslims should lead a protest movement against reverting HG to a mosque. If the reversion happens and the Muslim world essentially cheers through their silence, I don’t see how protestations of general Islamic moderation will remain credible.