Hagia Sophia and the Challenge of Religious Freedom

by George Demacopoulos | ελληνικά | српски

Hagia Sophia

Christian leaders and secular governments around the world have condemned, with good reason, the recent decision of a Turkish court to reconvert Hagia Sophia into a mosque. Indeed, this ruling is just the latest step in a century-long effort by the Turkish government to erase both the history and presence of Christianity in Turkey. And while President Erdogan’s advocacy for this change is little more than crude pandering to conservative Islamists in the wake of growing criticism, the ruling forces a series of hard questions for the advocates of persecuted Christian minorities in the region who use the framework of “religious freedom.”

For starters, there is the question of whether or not the forced transformation of Hagia Sophia from a mosque into a museum in 1935 was, objectively speaking, the just outcome of an aspiring democratic society. It is no secret that Kemal Ataturk, the engineer of the modern Turkish state, pursued this change as part of a wide-ranging plan to break from the historic authority of Islam in Ottoman society and to advance his vision for a future Turkey that would be radically secular.

But is the cause of religious freedom ever championed when a government forbids public prayers (of any form) at a sacred site? Setting aside (temporarily) the question of Hagia Sophia’s Christian origins, is there a way to view last week’s ruling as a partial corrective response to the overreach of militant secularism? How might Christians in the West have reacted if their own governments had done something akin to the forced closing of Hagia Sophia as a mosque in 1935?

Let us consider for a moment how we might respond if a future French government declares that a restored Notre Dame will be a museum rather than an active church because such a transformation would be more in-line with France’s commitment to laicité and because this particular government felt it was necessary to promote French nationalism over-and-against a global religious network centered in Rome, regardless of France’s Christian heritage. 

To be sure, the comparison to Notre Dame is far from perfect, but it does illustrate the need to understand the complexity of the issue at hand—there are many who view the court’s decision as a victory for religious freedom against the overreach of a secular state. Thus, to be effective, Christian advocates of religious freedom abroad need to account for this view, just as they need to remember that religious freedom is a useless category if it is only used to protect Christians from discrimination or if they fail to condemn the oppression of religious minorities in their own communities.

In the abstract, the court’s ruling also highlights the dilemma of any society that seeks to balance the conflicting demands of religious freedom within the context of pluralism. Most secular democracies strive to protect the rights of religious minorities as well as the non-religious by enacting laws that prevent structural biases and encourage equal opportunity. In the United States, this has meant a steady deprivileging of a (Protestant) Christian moral perspective since the 1960s. But this deprivileging has, in turn, led to a spate of legal objections from religious conservatives who feel that they are themselves the victims of discrimination because of their religious beliefs. One irony is that even though they practice different faith traditions, many American Christians and President Erdogan share the fundamental belief that government can and should be used to promote a particular kind of faith-based world view. 

But the Christians of Turkey do not live in the abstract, and the retransformation of Hagia Sophia into a mosque resurrects the trauma of historic conquest as well as the more recent confiscation and destruction of Christian churches by the Turkish government. There is simply no comparison between the genuine plight of the Christians in Turkey and American Evangelicals who think that they are being persecuted because of the legalization of gay marriage.

What makes the Turkish court ruling so dangerous for the nation’s Christian minorities is that this is not simply a case of judicial correction to an aggressive secularism that disenfranchised the religious rights of Muslims. Nor is this a case of an impartial court weighing the respective religious rights of majority and minority populations. This is a deliberate effort by a hand-picked court to contribute to the myth of a Turkey with no Christian roots. 

Through genocide, pogroms, property confiscation, harassment, and historical revision, Turkish leaders have demonstrated, time and again, that they have no interest in recognizing—let alone protecting—the Christian minorities of their nation. Erdogan has long championed the return of Hagia Sophia into a mosque precisely because it harkens to the Ottoman conquest of Constantinople, which is a powerful symbol of Islam’s destruction of Christianity for him.

Thus, the challenge for the advocates of religious freedom is that we must develop a compelling way to explain that even if the conversion of Hagia Sophia into a museum in 1935 can be understood to have transgressed the religious freedom of some Turks, it served a greater religious freedom goal by granting tacit recognition of Turkey’s Christian roots as well as the continued presence of Christians in Turkey. 

It is precisely for these reasons that Hagia Sophia must continue to project its Christian past, because people of the world—and especially the citizens of Turkey—need to know of Turkey’s Christian origins, just as they need to know of the horrific way that the Turkish government has treated its Christian minorities.

George Demacopoulos is the Fr. John Meyendorff and Patterson Family Chair of Orthodox Christian Studies and Co-Director of the Orthodox Christian Studies Center at Fordham University.