Lela Gilbert is Senior Fellow for International Religious Freedom at Family Research Council. This article appeared in Religion Unplugged on July 17, 2020.
In recent days, much has been written about Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan’s decision to convert the ancient Christian church Hagia Sophia—the Church of the Holy Wisdom—into a mosque.
The magnificent building—an architectural marvel—contains some of the most beautiful Christian frescos and mosaics in the world. For good reason, Hagia Sophia remains the prime tourist site in Turkey, regularly visited by millions of Christian pilgrims, among many others.
Perhaps the popularity of this Christian shrine stirs feelings of shame in Erdogan’s prideful Islamist sensibilities. His disrespect for Christianity is apparent in his abusive activities toward Christian communities and individuals, both at home and abroad.
Nonetheless, located in the heart of Istanbul, Hagia Sophia is a truly sacred space for Christians worldwide. It stands intact as one the most ancient artifacts of early Christian history. By the orders of Constantine the Great in the early sixth century, a church was built on the site of a pagan temple. Constantius II inaugurated Hagia Sophia on February 15, 360. That first church was torched during rioting, and a second Hagia Sophia was built. It was inaugurated in 532, but once again violence led to the church’s damage and destruction.
The present Hagia Sophia was completed and inaugurated by Emperor Justinian the Great in 537. The magnificent mosaics were completed later in that same century.
On May 29, President Erdogan, who is widely viewed as an aggressive pan-Islamist, celebrated the fifteenth century conquest of Constantinople with festivities centered on Hagia Sophia. The church was converted into a mosque when the Byzantine (Christian) army was defeated by the armies of Ottoman Sultan Mehmed II on May 29, 1453.
Meanwhile voices from around the world adamantly oppose the Islamization of such an ancient and revered Christian site.
On July 10, the United States Commission on International Religious Freedom (USCIRF) decried the declaration that the ancient church would be converted into a mosque. USCIRF Vice Chair Tony Perkins said:
USCIRF condemns the unequivocal politicization of the Hagia Sophia, an architectural wonder that has for so long stood as a cherished testament to a complex history and rich diversity. Both Christians and Muslims alike ascribe great cultural and spiritual importance to the Hagia Sophia, whose universal value to humankind was reaffirmed with its inclusion in the United Nations Educational, Scientific, and Cultural Organization (UNESCO) World Heritage List in 1985.
There are, in fact, many other complaints besides that of USCIRF. And several of them have come from Russia.
Vladimir Putin represents not only the Russian Federation, but also belongs, at least formally, to the Russian Orthodox church. In fact, he shares his name with Grand Prince Vladimir, a pagan animist who converted to Christianity and was baptized in the tenth century.
According to many reports, Prince Vladimir’s reverence for the Church of the Holy Wisdom in Constantinople marked the beginning of Russian Orthodoxy. I quote from the book Windows to Heaven, which I coauthored with my friend and Russian Orthodox scholar Elizabeth Zelensky:
“The story of Prince Valdimir’s search for a new religion has been recounted in numerous medieval chronicles and legends. Feeling the intellectual emptiness of polytheism, the prince sent out envoys to survey the major monotheistic religions. Upon their return, after an unenthusiastic review of Judaism and Islam, the envoys’ described the Orthodox worship at the Basilica of Hagia Sophia in Constantinople as stunning.
“Then we went to Greece [sic Byzantium] and the Greeks led us to the edifices where they worship their God, and we knew not whether we were in heaven or on earth. For on earth there is no such splendor or such beauty, and we are at a loss how to describe it. We know only that God dwells there among men, and their service is fairer than the ceremonies of other nations. For we cannot forget that beauty.”
Thus Russian Orthodoxy began.
More recently, Russian Patriarch Kyrill was quoted in The Moscow Times stating that he is “deeply concerned” by Turkey’s moves, describing Hagia Sophia as one of the greatest monuments of Christian culture."
“A threat to Hagia Sophia is a threat to the whole of Christian civilization, and therefore to our spirituality and history,” the Orthodox church leader said. “To this day, for every Russian Orthodox person, Hagia Sophia is a great Christian shrine,” he said, urging the Turkish government to be cautious. He said that altering the current neutral status of the historic building would cause “deep pain” among the Russian people.
Today numerous churches and shrines, dating to late antiquity and early medieval times, are dedicated to the Holy Wisdom. Besides the Hagia Sophia in Istanbul, churches devoted to that wisdom can be found in Greece, Macedonia, Serbia, Ukraine, Russia and beyond. In fact, reverence for the Wisdom of God is a foundational principle of the worldwide Christianity.
None of this is of concern to Erdogan, who has signed an official declaration that Istanbul’s Hagia Sophia will, indeed, be converted into a mosque. He has chosen to gamble with his somewhat frayed relationship with Putin, as well as his uncertain standing with other global powers, some of whom increasingly find ample reason to oppose him.
Of course, it is doubtful whether negative international reactions—including those of nations into which he has recently encroached such as Iraq, Syria, Libya, Greece and Israel—will have much effect on his caliphate fantasy. It is also doubtful that this latest neo-Ottoman success will even begin to satisfy Erdogan’s insatiable Islamist ambitions.
But what about President Erdogan himself? He now holds the keys to the world’s most beloved Christian shrine. At the same time, his insatiable ambition reveals that the man does not possess a key—not even a clue—to the attainment of Holy Wisdom itself.
Those attributes were clearly defined very long ago—well before the dawn of the Ottoman Empire—by Jesus’ brother James.