Hagia Sophia now a mosque; Pope Francis and WCC on Hagia Sophia

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Source: Peter Anderson, Seattle USA

(July 10, 2020) As was expected, there was the very sad news today that Hagia Sophia will be a mosque again.  https://www.hurriyetdailynews.com/hagia-sophia-converted-into-mosque-as-erdogan-signs-decree-156455  Late this afternoon, the Council of State, Turkey’s highest administrative court, issued its decision.  Minutes after the announcement of the decision, Turkey’s President Erdoğan signed a decree making Hagia Sophia a mosque.  The Hurriyet, Turkey’s largest newspaper, reported in the foregoing link the following:

The court based its verdict on the fact that the Hagia Sophia was a property of the Fatih Sultan Mehmet Han Foundation and registered to be used only as a mosque. The decision to grant a status of museum to the Hagia Sophia was given by former President Mustafa Kemal Atatürk in 1934.

The reasoning of the Council of State stressed that the government in 1934 had no powers to change the status of the religious structure. 

Apparently, the full text of the decision has not yet been published, but it will be shortly.  The reasoning of the Council of State quoted above in effect allows President Erdoğan to say that he had no alternative but to follow the decision of the court.  In other words, his signing of the decree was not a discretionary act on his part, but was rather dictated by the decision of the Council of State.  Turkey can also say that the decision of the Council of State was in turn dictated by the intricacies of Turkish law relating to the property rights of the Fatih Sultan Mehmet Han Foundation.  All of this helps to provide Turkey with a form of defense from international criticism.  To the extent that Erdoğan was contacted by international leaders about Hagia Sofia, he could say that it was beyond his control and in the hands of Turkey’s highest administrative court.  One can also argue that it would have been improper for foreign international leaders to seek to influence the judges in Turkey with respect to a case pending before them.  Was all of this a very clever scheme?  Whether it was or not, it worked.  Late today, Erdoğan stated that Hagia Sophia would be open for religious services beginning Friday, July 24.  https://uk.reuters.com/article/uk-turkey-museum-prayers/erdogan-says-first-prayers-in-hagia-sophia-on-july-24-idUKKBN24B2RA

The anticipation that Turkey was planning to turn Hagia Sophia into a mosque did unite Orthodox primates in their opposition.  On June 30, Ecumenical Patriarch Bartholomew made a strong statement in favor of maintaining Hagia Sophia as a museum.   https://www.ecupatria.org/2020/06/30/ecumenical-patriarch-bartholomew-about-hagia-sophia/#more-1413  A few days later, Patriarch Kirill issued his own strong statement.  https://mospat.ru/en/2020/07/06/news185298/   On July 8, Patriarch Daniel sent a letter to the Ecumenical Patriarch expressing the support of the Romanian Patriarchate for maintaining this historic cathedral as a museum.  https://basilica.ro/en/romanian-patriarchate-adds-its-voice-keep-hagia-sophia-a-museum/  On the same day, the Jerusalem Patriarchate posted an appeal by Patriarch Theophilos III to maintain the museum status.  https://en.jerusalem-patriarchate.info/blog/2020/07/08/statement-of-his-beatitude-patriarch-theophilos-iii-on-the-status-of-hagia-sophia-shrine/  On July 9, the Georgian Patriarchate issued a statement that “it will be a wise step today if the Hagia Sophia remains a neutral place.”  https://patriarchate.ge/news/2634

Today, the Orthodox Times posted an article entitled, “Pope Francis’ sad silence on the issue of Hagia Sophia.”  https://orthodoxtimes.com/pope-francis-sad-silence-on-the-issue-of-hagia-sophia/  I must admit that for the last few days, I have been making daily Google searches to see if the Vatican has made any statements with respect to the Hagia Sophia issue.  I found none.  The article states that “unfortunately Rome prefers not to get involved.”  However, one cannot honestly say at this point that Pope Francis did nothing.  It is possible that rather than making a public statement, which would cause a negative public reaction in Turkey (as did the Ecumenical Patriarch’s statement), the Vatican preferred to use quiet diplomacy.  It is even possible that Pope Francis made a telephone call to Erdoğan.  We simply do not know at this point and may never know.  The media may believe that it has a right to know everything, but certain matters are best left confidential.  Although a representative of the Russian Foreign Ministry (not the Foreign Minister) expressed concern that Hagia Sophia might be turned into a mosque, I have seen no statements that President Putin himself made any statements or made any contact with Erdoğan.  However, that does not mean that he did not do so in a non-public fashion.

The article also quotes another website that this was the second time that Rome preferred not to get involved in saving Hagia Sophia, the first being not responding to the calls for help before the fall of Constantinople in 1453.  The later assertion is simply not true.  After the Council of Florence, Pope Eugenius IV called a crusade for the purpose of driving the Turks from the Balkans and saving Constantinople.  The only monarch to answer the call was Ladislaus III, king of Poland and Hungary.  After spectacular successes against the Turks, the twenty-year-old king was defeated by the Turks and was killed at the battle of Varna in Bulgaria on November 10, 1444.  Again, shortly before the fall, the pope did in fact send assistance to Constantinople as described in an article posted by the same Orthodox Times  on May 29.  https://orthodoxtimes.com/the-fall-of-constantinople-the-dreadful-day-29-may-1453/  The article states: “The former Metropolitan of Kiev and All Russia Isidore, a Cardinal of the Roman Church, who came to Constantinople as Papal Legate, recruited at Naples, at the Pope’s expense, 200 soldiers.”  In addition, “under the command of the brave Giovanni Giustiniani Longo about 700 well-armed men sailed, on two Genoese vessels, for the Byzantine capital. The ships arrived in the city on January 29, 1453; Giustiniani was promptly appointed by the Emperor head of the defense.”  These Italian soldiers fought valiantly to defend Constantinople as described in the same article…

With respect to news relating to the Moscow Patriarchate, Metropolitan Hilarion gave a very interesting interview today relating to the sad events in Istanbul.  https://mospat.ru/ru/2020/07/10/news185363/  Among other concerns, he raised the question again of what will happen to the beautiful fragments of Byzantine mosaics that now can be seen at Hagia Sophia.  A spokesperson for the president of Turkey said today that the icons within the building would be preserved.  https://www.hurriyetdailynews.com/hagia-sophia-will-always-belong-to-worlds-heritage-presidential-spokesperson-156431

(July 12, 2020) This is a very brief postscript to my report send Friday.  I have been waiting to see whether Pope Francis would say anything today about Hagia Sophia in his Angelus address which is given each Sunday.  This was the first opportunity for him to comment publicly after Friday’s decision to make Hagia Sophia a mosque.  Pope Francis did.  In extemporaneous remarks, the Pope stated:  I think of Hagia Sophia, and I am very saddened.  https://www.vaticannews.va/en/pope/news/2020-07/angelus-pope-remembers-seafarers.html  You can watch a video of his Angelus address at https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=H9xJUbS0DqA .  He makes his remarks beginning at 13:40 in the video.  In my opinion, his expressions and pauses add to the words that he used.  His actual words in Italian were:  E il mare mi porta un po’ lontano col pensiero: a Istanbul.  Penso a Santa Sofia, e sono molto addolorato.   The Italian word “addolorato” means grieved or distressed.  One might use this word in Italian to express one’s feelings about the death of a loved one.  As I stated on Friday, one simply does not know what, if anything, Pope Francis or the Vatican may have done before this in the form of quiet diplomacy outside the view of the media.

These words by Pope Francis have been immediately reported by the world’s major news agencies as a Google search will show.  See, for example, https://uk.reuters.com/article/uk-turkey-museum-verdict-pope/pope-very-pained-by-decision-to-turn-istanbuls-hagia-sophia-museum-into-mosque-idUKKCN24D0B2https://ria.ru/20200712/1574234289.html.  It was also reported by the Orthodox Times which referred to the Pope’s remarks as “a brief and absolutely neutral reference to the issue of Hagia Sophia.”  https://orthodoxtimes.com/pope-francis-is-saddened-over-hagia-sophia/

Yesterday, the World Council of Churches expressed its “grief and dismay” at Turkey’s decision in a letter to President Erdogan of Turkey.  The full text of the letter can be read at https://www.oikoumene.org/en/press-centre/news/wcc-letter-to-president-erdogan-to-keep-hagia-sophia-as-the-shared-heritage-of-humanity .  The letter was signed by, Rev. Prof. Dr Ioan Sauca, Interim General Secretary.  As you probably already know, Father Ioan is a priest of the Romanian Patriarchate.

Remarks by Archbishop Anastasios, primate of the Orthodox Church of Albania, concerning Friday’s decision can be read at https://orthodoxtimes.com/albanian-archbishop-about-hagia-sophia-this-decision-turns-us-back-to-dark-times/.  The statement by Patriarch Theodoros of Alexandria is reported at https://orthodoxtimes.com/patriarch-of-alexandria-turkey-adds-a-big-thorn-in-the-peaceful-coexistence-of-religions/

Peter Anderson, Seattle USA

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