Many in the Philippines do not know, and consequently do not care, about the Hagia Sophia. It is a very important church for the Christians in the East. It is found in present-day Istanbul, which formerly was known as Constantinople, the capital of the Eastern Roman Empire. What Rome was to the West among the Christians for the first 1500 years of Christianity, so Constantinople was to the East.
Hagia Sophia, Greek for Holy Wisdom, is the cathedral of the Patriarch of Constantinople since AD 537. When the Muslims conquered Constantinople in 1453, it was converted into a mosque. However, in 1934 the President of Turkey then, Mr. Mustafa Kemal, as a sign of openness, decreed that it be made into a museum so that people of all religions can go there and appreciate the sacred arts in the cathedral and so that all religions can use it as a place of prayer and reflection. It was regarded as a positive step for inter-religious dialogue.
Unfortunately the secularist government of Turkey is being undermined by Muslim religious fundamentalism under the present strongman Recep Tayyip Erdogan. On July 19 he declared that the Hagia Sophia will again be used as a Muslim mosque starting on July 24.
Many church leaders view this as moving backward in inter-religious dialogue; this is decided in spite of the gains that have been done in openness and understanding among religions. On February 4, 2019 a landmark document was signed in Abu Dhabi between Pope Francis and Sheikh Ahmed Al-Tayeb, the Grand Imam of Al-Azhar, the most reputable Muslim institute of learning. This is known as Document of Human Fraternity. It serves as a basis of dialogue not only between Christians and Muslims but also among other religions. It was a great step forward. But this development on Hagia Sophia is a big setback. It is so expressed by the Near East Council of Churches (NECC), a body representing many Christian religious traditions in the Middle East. Other churches in other parts of the world (the US, Great Britain, Europe) express their dismay at this step taken by the Turkish government. Even the Holy Father Pope Francis is saddened by it.
Here in the Philippines, we are celebrating and promoting this year as the Year of Ecumenism, and Dialogue among religions and the indigenous Peoples. We should also feel hurt by this development about Hagia Sophia even if it happened so far away. Unity and goodwill in any part of the world affect everyone, and so also its opposite. Hagia Sophia is a structure that has rich historical and religious significance. It should be opened to all peoples and not just be exclusive only to one group. Although the Turkish government has announced that tourists can still visit the place, yet people of other faiths will no longer be welcome to pray and hold services there. It is very sad that in this moment of global crisis unnecessary moves are being taken that divide peoples rather than unite them.