Five thousand seven hundred fifty-six miles flying east from Atlanta, crossing the Atlantic Ocean, one reaches the meeting place of East and West — Istanbul in Turkey. Previously known as Constantinople after emperor Constantine the Great, Istanbul recently witnessed an aggressive and radical event of Islamization. The conversion and renaming of the world famous architectural wonder and masterpiece — Hagia Sophia — originally built as Christianity’s mighty Cathedral in 537 AD, into a mosque sent shock waves among Christians across the globe, especially all people of goodwill who are followers of various religious traditions and even non-believers.
Yes, on Friday, July 24, by conducting the Muslim prayer in Hagia Sophia (Holy Wisdom), the hitherto museum (for the past 86 years) officially became a Muslim worship place. One can easily see the philosophy behind this move of Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan is “might is right.”
On Sunday, July 12, after the midday prayers Pope Francis expressed his deep sorrow in few calculated words: “I think of Hagia Sophia, and I am very saddened.” The Pontiff’s remark was in reference to the decree signed by Erdogan on July 10 turning this finest example of Byzantine architecture on the planet into an Islamic place of worship, naming it Ayasofya Mosque.
Ever since this church was built by Emperor Justinian in the sixth century it remained as the world’s largest Christian cathedral for almost 1,000 years until the Ottoman empire invaded Constantinople in 1453 and converted it into a mosque.
After the fall of Ottoman empire after the first World War, Turkey became a secular republic under President Mustafa Kemal Ataturk, the founder of modern Turkey, and the mosque was turned into a museum in 1934. Ataturk pledged to build up Turkey as a secular liberal state. As an expression of his commitment he uncovered the beautiful mosaics of Christ, Virgin Mary, John the Baptist and others that were covered up by the Ottomans in Hagia Sophia. Until Erdogan’s recent decree, for the past 86 years, this museum, according to Eastern Orthodox Ecumenical Patriarch Bartholomew of Constantinople, remained as “the symbolic place of encounter, dialogue, solidarity and mutual understanding between Christianity and Islam.”
Of Turkey’s close to 84 million people, 98% are Muslims. No where in the world is majoritarian rule allowed to possess forcibly, in this case, and impose Islamic dominance by way of majoritarian claim on a world-acclaimed structure, which has been possessed and until recently agreed to as a museum by the Christians. To convert and make this structure into a mosque totally disregards the claims and rights of the minority. This is sheer religious fundamentalism.
Ataturk’s secular liberal state no longer exists. Instead, as news reaches from different corners, Erdogan is laying the foundation for the creation of an Islamic State — the Caliphate. Turkey, under Erdogan, is believed to be a strong supporter of the Islamic State.
Reports say there are over 3,000 mosques in Istanbul and a number of them can hold more than 1,000 worshipers at a time. This being the case, if not for radical Islamization of the nation, what urgency was there to convert this UNESCO declared World Heritage Site as a mosque.
Do Erdogan and his followers think that they would be getting a better place in their afterlife as a reward of praying in Hagia Sophia after converting it into a Muslim place of worship? I believe and am convinced they won’t. Because all religions are meant to help their followers to reach God by living a life of genuine love, peace, harmony and caring for each other. Erdogan’s act, no doubt, fills the hearts and minds of people across the globe with the poison of hatred and animosity.
The Catholic bishops in the United States joining their Greek Orthodox counterparts issued a joined statement expressing sorrow at this politico-religious aggression and asked the faithful to observe Friday, July 24, as a “Day of Mourning.” Peace loving people and their leaders all over the world are calling Erdogan to reverse his decision and keep the status quo of the Hagia Sophia as a museum. Erdogan’s call for an Islamic reawakening of all the Muslims in every corner of the earth could be understood as a clear expression of his vision for an Islamic Caliphate.
Turkey’s transformation being effected step by step under the leadership of Erdogan from a secular liberal state into a fundamentalist radical Islamic state is a cause of alarm and restlessness for the rest of the world. It’s high time for Erdogan to act and live like a normal human being rather than being a Nero or Diocletian of the first centuries in the Roman Empire.
As the leader of a nation Erdogan needs to be reminded of the inspiring and thought-provoking words of Pope Francis: “Rivers do not drink their own water; trees do not eat their own fruits; the sun does not shine on itself and flowers do not spread their fragrance for themselves. Living for others is a rule of nature. We are born to help each other. No matter how difficult it is … Life is good when you are happy; but much better when others are happy because of you.”
The question to Erdogan is: Is the world happy because of you?
The Rev. Jose M. Kochuparampil ministers at St. Mary, Mother of God Catholic Church in Jackson. He can be reached at [email protected].