Russians Join Calls Urging Turkey Not to Revert One of Christendom’s Most Famous Churches into a Mosque

Dimitri Simes | July 8, 2020 | 7:41pm EDT
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The Hagia Sophia is among Istanbul’s best-known landmarks. (Photo by Ozan Kose/AFP via Getty Images)
The Hagia Sophia is among Istanbul’s best-known landmarks. (Photo by Ozan Kose/AFP via Getty Images)

Moscow ( – Russian lawmakers adopted a resolution on Tuesday calling on Turkey not to change the status of Istanbul’s famed Hagia Sophia from that of a museum to a mosque, warning that Russia’s valued friendly relations with Turkey could be harmed by such a move.

The resolution urged Turkish lawmakers “to show wisdom and not to revise the decision of the founder of modern Turkey, Mustafa Kemal Ataturk, who for many years turned Hagia Sophia into a symbol of peace and interfaith harmony.”

Hagia Sophia was the seat of the Eastern Orthodox Church for nearly 900 years before being turned into a mosque in the 15th century. Ataturk in a 1934 decree declared it a museum.

Calls by Turkish Islamists and nationalists to revert the landmark’s status back to that of a mosque are not new, but last year President Recep Tayyip Erdogan pledged to do so while campaigning for re-election.

Erdogan and his pro-Islamist Justice and Development Party are now backing a legal challenge by a religious group to undo Ataturk’s 1934 decree. Turkey’s Supreme Court announced on July 2 that it would reach a decision on the petition within 15 days.

Konstantin Zatulin, a senior member of the State Duma – the lower house of the Russian parliament – accused Turkish authorities of “going back to the Middle Ages” and said Russia could not be indifferent to Hagia Sophia’s fate.

He told state news agency RIA Novosti that Russia, “as the largest country in the Orthodox world, the spiritual and dynastic successor of the Orthodox Byzantine Empire,” had a special responsibility regarding the historical church.

“I would hope that Russian-Turkish relations will not be harmed because of an unwise attempt to reappropriate the Christian heritage of the sixth century in the twenty-first century.”

Russian Orthodox Church head Patriarch Kirill in a statement denounced the proposal as “a threat to the entire Christian civilization.”

The Russian people had always responded with “bitterness and indignation” to “any attempt to degrade or trample upon the millennium-old spiritual heritage of the Church of Constantinople,” he warned.

President Vladimir Putin has so far not commented on the controversy, but Kremlin spokesperson Dmitry Peskov told reporters that Russia “hopes that Hagia Sophia’s status as a world heritage site will be taken into consideration.” (UNESCO named the building a world heritage site in 1985.)

Beyond Russia’s borders, Patriarch Bartholomew, the Istanbul-based spiritual head of Orthodox Christians worldwide, warned that changing the status “will turn millions of Christians around the world against Islam.” Numerous other Christian denominations have also spoken out.

Built in 537 AD – before the founding of Islam – by the Byzantine Emperor Justinian, Hagia Sophia was widely regarded as one the architectural wonders of the Christian world. Following the conquest of Constantinople in 1453, the Ottoman Turks plundered the building’s riches and converted it into a mosque.

Ataturk’s move to declare it a museum open to the general public was part of a larger drive to reduce the influence of religion over Turkish politics and public life.

Earlier this month, Secretary of State Mike Pompeo called on Turkey to maintain the Hagia Sophia as a museum “that remains accessible to all.”

Greek government spokesperson Stelios Petsa warned last week that changing Hagia Sophia’s status would “create a huge emotional chasm between the Christians of the world and Turkey.”

In both cases, Ankara slammed the statements as interference in Turkey’s domestic affairs.

During a ceremony in Istanbul earlier this week, Erdogan declared, “Making such accusations against our country with regard to Hagia Sophia is tantamount to a direct attack on our sovereignty.”

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