Hagia Sophia in perspective

I love the grand, old lady, Hagia Sophia. I first visited Turkey on a pilgrimage for LA Archdiocesan priests in the fall of 2000, and fell in love with both the people and the land. Between 2005 and 2013, I returned to Turkey 11 times — as a participant in a study tour in 2005, followed by leading pilgrims to visit Early Christian World sites almost annually from 2006 to 2013, and leading LA priests on an “orientation” tour sponsored by the Pacifica Institute in 2012 and 2013.

I will never return to Turkey, philosophically because the heavy-handed authoritarian government under Erdoğan makes me want to puke, but more practically because I would probably not get farther than the airport. You see, the Pacifica Institute that I was asociated with is a part of the broader Hizmet movement, inspired by Fethullah Gülen, a Turkish Muslim philosopher and preacher whom I greatly admire. Gülen successfully and effectively promoted a quality of Islam that we of the West would call “moderate,” emphasizing both traditional Islamic moral integrity and the imperative for Muslims to live in harmony with the pluralistic world of today. A very hopeful and positive value.

Gülen, his followers and the institutions they created were (wrongly and unjustly, IMHO) branded “terrorists” by Erdoğan and blamed for the 2016 coup attempt, which undoubtedly had some “Gülenists” involved, but was so poorly handled that I can’t escape the suspicion that Erdoğan himself had some kind of hand it. After the coup was easily put down, Erdoğan was on a roll and virtually unhindered in destroying all institutions and activities in Turkey associated with the movement. That included a network of worldwide charities, communications media, and schools based in Turkey. During this purge of the past few years, as many as 200,000 people in Turkey associated with the Hizmet movement have been arrested, many of them imprisoned.

I did not put links to references in the above paragraphs to support my assertions because the information can be easily found online, beginning with Wikipedia. I’m simply explaining my position, not defending it nor trying to convince you. And yes, I admit my view is controversial and not everybody agrees. (So don’t try to argue with me in the comments. You’ll risk being deleted.) But I came to my conclusions following thirteen years of experience as a pilgrim in Turkey, constantly studying history, religion, and culture (with an eye on politics, but not an emphasis). And praying . . . as is the heart of any pilgrimage.

As much as I love the land and its people, I had never considered Turkey as a possible retirement home, contrary to what some people may have speculated. Furthermore, because of my involvement, albeit it minor, with the Gülen movement since 2012, my name — along the the other LA priests who traveled in the 2012 and 2013 trips — is very likely on a list that will pop up on the border control screens as soon as my passport is scanned.

Now that I think about it, it would probably appear on the consulate computer here in LA if I tried to get a visa. I’m not going to test it to find out.

Back to Hagia Sophia. There is probably no building on earth with such a wide and deep religious tradition behind it, including St. Peter’s. Constantinople — with Hagia Sophia at its heart — is the cradle of Christianity. Pope Benedict XIV rightly called Turkey the “Holy Land of the Church,” as Israel/Palestine is the Holy Land of Christ.

Not only was Hagia Sophia a must-visit part of every tour or pilgrimage, but I also made a point of spending time there — sometimes a whole day — after the pilgrimage formally ended. It’s safe to say I have explored every publicly accessible nook and cranny. And I love every nook and cranny.

That said, I can share some of the sadness expressed over the “reversion” of Hagia Sofia as a mosque, but I do not share the outrage some have expressed. As much as I loathe the current authoritarian government under Erdoğan, I think there is some cause for hope in the restoration of Muslim identity in Turkey. I just hope it can be done with descending into Islamist extremism and exclusivity.

Erdoğan’s goal seems to be to restore something like the days of the Ottoman rulers. There may be something to that. For all its flaws, Ottoman rule succeeded for about 400 years in maintaining a healthy trade and even social and cultural relationship with “the West,” even while periodically engaging in wars of conquest (which they lost as often as they won).

The last days of the Ottoman Empire were horrible no matter how you look at them. By the turn of the 20th century, Turkey under the Ottomans was “the sick man of Europe.” Germany had been good at bailing them out economically, but as a result, the Sultan unwisely threw in his lot with Germany and the Axis Powers in World War I, suffering, of course, defeat.

Mustafa Kemal Atatürk, whose last name which hew took on gladly means “Father of the Turks,” was the Turkish WWI military hero who, immediately after the war struggled successfully to prevent the Allies from carving up Turkey into their own “protectorates,” and then overthrew the then comatose Sultanate to establish the Republic of Turkey in 1923. His intention, which he pursued ruthlessly, was to establish a thoroughly secular state in which religion played no part.

Because of sheer numbers, the religiosity of the Muslim majority had to be accommodated, which he did by establishing tight government control of all Muslim religious activities. This was not difficult to do because the Qur’an and Islamic tradition envisions a theocracy as the ideal political order. Separation of church (or even mosque) and state is a new and foreign concept in Islam. Interestingly, Turkey became the home of scholars (like Gülen and others) who began to envision, often secretly and under persecution, a religious philosophy of pluralism within Islam.

But Atatürk’s secularization was not good news for Christians. If the Armenian genocide was (as I believe) the unfortunate last gasp of an endangered and dying Ottoman Sultanate, the real purge of the Christian minorities (who in fact often prospered under the Ottomans) too place under Atatürk around the 1923 establishment of the Republic.

You can look up the details, but the Christian population of Turkey went from about 20-25% in the early 1900s to around 0.2% in the early 2000s. (There are currently around 35,000 Catholics in Turkey, around 0.05% of the population — a tiny minority within a minority. They are nearly all of European origin, with a very few Turks, all converts, in that number.)

That’s right. Militantly aggressive secularization under Atatürk reversed centuries of profitable toleration of a Christian presence. Under the Ottomans, the mostly Greek and Armenian Orthodox, as well as mostly Italian and French Catholic, flourished and prospered. Greeks and Armenian had been inhabitants of the land for millennia; Italians and French had been brought by commerce in the previous few centuries.

In the 20th century, a relatively tolerant religious co-existence in Turkey was replaced by aggressive secularization, which in turn is being replaced by aggressive Islamization.

As a Catholic, my grief over Hagia Sophia is tempered by the fact that, even though it’s an ancient part of our heritage. we Catholics repudiated any claim to this church as our own (even if shared) on July 16, 1054, when the papal legate, Spanish Cardinal Humbert, stormed into Hagia Sofia during the Divine Liturgy celebrated by Patriarch Michael Cerularius, slammed a decree of excommunication on the altar, and stormed out. Humbert was in Constantinople on behalf of Pope Leo IX to negotiate a possible reunion, but ultimatums were hurled back and forth, and ended up in mutual excommunications.

BTW, the excommunications were formally lifted in 1965 by joint action of Pope Paul VI and Patriarch Athenagoras I, but the schism is far from healed.

So, Hagia Sophia as a state-owned museum, even if it’s a World Heritage Site, opened it up to the world culturally, but removed the reason why it exists in the first place. Although it had been a Christian church — in fact, the heart of Orthodoxy — for nearly a millennium, it had also been a place of Muslim worship for nearly half a millennium. Atatürk in 1935, I’m sure, saw denying it to Muslim prayer and transforming it into a museum as a triumph of secularism. Now it’s back to use as a place of prayer for Muslims.

Catholics — nor Protestants, for that matter — have no real stake in this matter. We can rightly express sadness, but should save out outrage for weightier matters.

Meanwhile, there is one benefit. In the unlikely event that I ever got back to Turkey, I could visit Hagia Sofia freely and would not have to pay TL100 entrance fee. (All major mosques in Turkey are freely open to the public outside of prayer times.)

Mustafa Akyol gives a good summary on the background of this whole event in his interview yesterday on CNN with Fareed Zakaria.

I’m a big fan of Akyol. Most anything he says or writes is worthpaying attention to.

I don’g always agree, however. He has long advocated returning Hagia Sophia to both Muslim prayer and Christian worship. That sounds nice, but I think he underestimates the amount of fighting among Christians that would ensue. Just look at the Church of the Holy Sepulchre.

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