A Turkish government adviser says Christians and Muslims should be allowed to worship again in Istanbul’s Hagia Sophia basilica, eight decades after it was turned into a museum by the country’s secularist authorities.
“Hagia Sofia was built as a place of worship. It served people this way as a church and mosque for more than a thousand years,” said Mehmet Akif Aydýn, an expert with the Presidency of Religious Affairs, which monitors religious sites in Turkey, including more than 80,000 mosques.
“As a Muslim, I’d like it to become a mosque. But if Hagia Sofia were opened to Muslim worshippers on weekdays, it should also be opened to Christians on Sundays. It disturbs me that it’s become just a museum and tourist destination.”
The expert was commenting on calls for the sixth century landmark to be reopened for religious events, after warnings from the European Commission that Turkey must offer better protection of religious rights as a precondition for joining the European Union by 2015.
In an interview with the daily Zaman newspaper on Oct. 5, he said the basilica’s use by both faiths would help strengthen Christian-Muslim cooperation in Turkey, which has witnessed several attacks by Islamic militants on Christian clergy, including the June killing of Bishop Luigi Padovese, president of the country’s Roman Catholic Bishops Conference.
“Continuing a culture of coexistence, which I hope will improve throughout Turkey, is more important and acceptable than having Hagia Sophia remain a museum,” said Professor Aydýn, who also runs an Istanbul-based Islamic Research Centre and teaches at Marmara University. “We can learn to coexist with other faiths if we allow every faith group member to learn and live his religion without fears and reservations.”
Christian minorities have frequently complained of discrimination and hostility in Turkey, nearly all of whose 76 million inhabitants are Sunni Muslims. In May, the country’s Islamist prime minister, Recep Tayyip Erdogan, ordered local authorities to “uphold the rights of the Christian and Jewish minorities” and to “behave with respect towards their clergy.”
In August, the Muslim head of the Presidency of Religious Affairs, Mufti Ali Bardakoglu, called for an ancient church at St Paul’s birthplace of Tarsus to be returned to Christian worship. Two years earlier it had attracted world attention during second millennium celebrations of the apostle’s birth.
Originally commissioned by Emperor Constantine, Hagia Sophia was rebuilt between 532 and 537 as the foremost church in Constantinople, which was later renamed Istanbul, from a design said to be dictated to the Emperor Justinian by an angel in a dream. It was used as a mosque after the city’s capture by Ottoman Turks in 1453 and turned into a museum in 1934 in Istanbul by Turkey’s secularist founder, Kemal Ataturk.
In 2005, a group of Swiss lecturers and academics began collecting one million signatures to petition the European Parliament to ensure “Christendom’s grandest place of worship for over 900 years” was reopened for religious worship.