On July 10, 2020, the Turkish State Council repealed the decree of November 27, 1934 transforming the Hagia Sophia into a museum. There is no longer anything to prevent this symbolic high place of the Eastern Roman Empire from once again becoming a mosque.
“Our nation has been waiting for this for 86 years. The court lifted the ban on Hagia Sophia,” wrote the editorial writer for Hürriyet, the Turkish daily reputed to be close to the ruling Islamo-conservative party, on July 9. For his part, the head of state soberly indicated on his Twitter account: “It has been decided that Hagia Sophia will be placed under the administration of Diyanet (the Authority for Religious Affairs) and will be reopened for prayers.”
The unanimous decision of a Council of State in the hands of President Recep Tayyip Erdogan has far-reaching political significance. It allows the guardian of the Sublime Porte to acquire a new legitimacy—at a time when it is disputed by a part of the Turkish electorate—and to appear as one who can restore, in the region, the area of influence of the old Ottoman Empire.
The Holy See remained discreet on this thorny question, until Pope Francis declared at the end of the Angelus on Sunday July 12 that he was “very saddened” by this decision to transform the ancient basilica into a mosque: “I was thinking about what is happening in Istanbul. I think of Hagia Sophia and I am very saddened,” he commented briefly.
The most hostile reactions have come from the Orthodox world. Thus, Patriarch Kirill of the Russian Orthodox Church expressed his “bitterness” and his “exasperation,” before what he considers to be an “attempt to humiliate or trample on the thousand-year-old spiritual heritage of the Church of Constantinople.” For the Russian religious leader, “a threat against Hagia Sophia is a threat to all of Christian civilization.”
Erected in the 4th century on the ruins of an ancient temple dedicated to Apollo, the “Great Church” as it was called has suffered several disasters. Its current appearance dates from the sixth century, when the emperor Justinian undertook to reconstruct the building and dedicate it to divine Wisdom.
After more than a millennium that saw the bloodless sacrifice of Calvary renewed without interruption, the basilica was transformed into a mosque when the city was taken by the Muslims on May 29, 1453.
Abandoned in 1934 by Atatürk—a measure still contested by the Islamist fringe—the building became a museum. With the July 10, 2020 decision, the call of the muezzin will once again be able to rise under the dome of Saint Sophia which, from its fifty-five meters height, still evokes the sumptuous coronations of the last Roman emperors of East, when it does not resonate sermons pronounced long ago by the illustrious St. John Chrysostom.
Pressed by electoral deadlines, the Turkish president has already announced Muslim worship in the Hagia Sophia for Friday July 24, despite international protests.