HUMAN RIGHTS COMMISSION – HAGIA SOPHIA (and what next)

28.07.2020

Hagia Sophia (Greek γία Σοφία, Aja Sofia; Turkish Ayasofya) – a mosque in Istanbul, and in the past a Christian temple and a museum. Considered the greatest building and architecture of the first millennium AD.

The original building was built as the Church of God’s Wisdom (also known as the Great Church). It was the highest-ranking temple in the Byzantine Empire, the patriarch’s cathedral and the place of prayers and coronations of the Byzantine emperors, an unmatched model of a perfect temple over the centuries and almost a symbol of the Byzantine Church. Founded by Justinian I the Great, it was built in its present form between February 23, 532 and December 27, 537. After the conquest of Constantinople by the Turks in 1453, it was converted into a mosque (then minarets were added). The temple was to be overshadowed by the Blue Mosque built in the 17th century.

From 1934 to July 2020, the temple acted as a museum. After the decision of the Turkish administrative court to invalidate the 1934 decree and the decision of President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan, it was again converted into a mosque.

After the fall of the Ottoman Empire, Turkey became a secular republic. Consequently, Mustafa Kemal Atatürk ordered in 1934 that the temple, which had served Christians for 916 years and Muslims for 481 years, should be changed into a museum. At that time, carpets were removed from the floor and plaster from the walls, revealing some mosaics. Mainly the mosaics in the upper galleries were exposed, while those in the main nave remained mostly covered. In 2009, the metal stars covering the faces of two seraphim were removed.

In 1979, during his pilgrimage to Turkey, Hagia Sofia was visited by Pope John Paul II, in 2006 by Pope Benedict XVI, and in 2014 by Pope Francis.

In 2016, for the first time since the statutory secularization of the temple in 1935, the muezzin intoned an esan inside the temple, the call of Muslims to prayer. The event was broadcast live on the state television TRT. It is assumed that the departure from the secular nature of the museum was ordered by President Recep Erdoğan.

In July 2020, an administrative court in Turkey overturned the 1934 decree transforming Hagia Sofia into a museum. After this decision, the president of this country issued a document stating that from 24 July this place will once again serve as a mosque, i.e. a place of prayer for Muslims.

The authorities of the USA, France and Greece protested against such a decision, as well as Jerome II, head of the Greek Orthodox Church, and Ecumenical Patriarch of Constantinople Bartholomew I, spiritual head of about 300 million Orthodox Christians around the world. Pope Francis also expressed sadness over this decision.

The reason for numerous objections in this matter was the fact that the building was built as a Christian temple, which until 1453 was a place of worship for the followers of Eastern Christianity (from the 11th century Orthodox).

Artur Wierzbicki

FBE Human Rights Commission