Built in the fourth century by Emperor Justinian as the seat of worldwide Christianity, the Hagia Sophia (Church of Holy Wisdom) has stood for about 1700 years on the European side of the city of Istanbul in today’s Turkey.
Throughout its long history it has served several religions. Originally built as the seat of all Christianity, the Hagia Sophia became the seat of Orthodoxy after the two branches of Christianity split between Constantinople and Rome. The Bishop of Rome became the sole leader of the Roman Catholic Church (the pope) and the Bishop of Constantinople remained the first among equals of the bishops in the East, together becoming the "Orthodox Church."
Briefly, during the Crusades, the Hagia Sophia was consecrated as a Roman Catholic Church but was returned to Orthodoxy after less than one hundred years — a mere blink of the eye in the life of this structure.
After the fall of Constantinople in 1453, the church was forcibly converted to a mosque and remained so until the 1920s.
In post-World War I Europe, there were many nations created and many national borders moved substantially by the Treaty of Versailles. The Turks fought on the losing side and forfeited the western-most seashore of the Anatolian Peninsula (except for Istanbul) and the entire Aegean basin to a resurgent and victorious Greece.
Over the ensuing several years, the Greeks were forcibly pushed out of Western Anatolia and the current borders were largely stabilized from that time to the present.
Kemal Ataturk, the Turkish hero of Gallipoli, became the first post-sultan leader of the Turks. He worked to build a secular state designed to be more in line with non-religious European states than the religion-centric Mideast states. As part of his reforms, the Hagia Sophia was designated a museum and eventually an international historic structure – not a structure devoted to any religion. It has stood that way for about the last one hundred years.
A few years ago, the pope visited the Hagia Sophia as a tourist and was warned sternly by the Turkish government to refrain from any religious gestures or prayers because of the importance of keeping intact the delicate balance of the building’s designation a secular structure. The pope complied and very conspicuously refrained from blessing himself as any priest (or ordinary Christian) would do when entering any church anywhere.
Ignoring these extreme efforts by all concerned, Recep Tayyip Erdogan, the president of Turkey, announced that he will be praying in the Hagia Sophia this Friday and that its status is that it's a mosque — not merely a museum.
He justified this by stating that Ataturk never actually signed a decree making the structure a museum. He further endorsed certain recent "scholarship" in Turkey stating that Ataturk’s signature had been forged on the operative document and that the Hagia Sophia’s status as a mosque has never been altered.
This is specious both because the scholarship is suspect at best and that Ataturk’s designation is no longer controlling as the Hagia Sophia has been designated a World Heritage site and so accepted by the Turkish government.
The date of Erdogan’s prayers is additionally provocative being that it is Good Friday. Good Friday is the day on which Christians observe the crucifixion and death of Jesus Christ before the resurrection three days later on Easter Sunday. It is a day of prayer, total abstinence and fast.
This year, both the Orthodox Church which uses the Julian calendar and the Catholic Church which uses the Gregorian calendar (as well as the Protestant Churches which generally follow the Catholic calendar) are in-sync with their dates celebrating Easter and, consequently, will all be observing Good Friday simultaneously. So, Erdogan’s act is universally provocative.
To this day, the head of the Orthodox Church, the Patriarch of Constantinople in exile in Athens, still properly regards the Hagia Sophia as the "Vatican" of Orthodoxy and is incensed at the actions of the Turkish leader. Christian leaders around the world are similarly worried.
President Erdogan is trying to bolster his credentials in Turkey by fostering a hyper-religiosity among his Muslim supporters. His efforts were further bolstered by the recent elections in the Netherlands where the fate of the continued existence of Islam in that country was briefly in doubt but finally rejected by the voters.
Erdogan is tempting a religious conflict purposely and with no real reason other than to bolster his own position in power. His rhetoric recently is bellicose in tone and very provocative in his exhortations to Muslims in Europe. This must stop as it is irresponsible and certainly runs against the national interest of the Turkish State.
I hope that the citizenry of Turkey will reject this unnecessary agitation of worldwide Christianity in the same way that the voters in the Netherlands rejected the banning of Islam.
This Good Friday, I will be praying for us all. I urge you to the same.
I wish a Happy Easter to you and Kalo Paska to my Orthodox friends.
Michael Patrick Flanagan represented the 5th District of Illinois in the historic 104th Congress. Prior to his Congressional Service, Michael was commissioned in the United States Army Field Artillery. Michael and his firm, Flanagan Consulting LLC, have represented both large and small corporations, organizations, and associations. In 2009, Michael entered public service again with the United States Department of State in Iraq as the Senior Rule of Law Advisor on the Maysan Provincial Reconstruction Team (PRT) in Maysan, Iraq. For more of his reports — Click Here Now.
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