Built in the 6th century in what was then Constantinople, the Saint Sophia cathedral was one of the Christian world’s most important places of worship until the city fell to the Ottoman Turks in 1453. The new rulers converted the building into a mosque, and so it remained until 1935 when Mustafa Kemal Atatürk, attempting to create a new secular Turkish nationalism, turned it into a museum. Now Turkey’s current president, Recep Tayyip Erdogan, has decided into make it a mosque once more, to the pain of many Christians. Daniel Johnson comments:
Erdogan is whipping up old enmities—and he knows it. Not only has he reignited hostility in Greece, at a time when new waves of refugees may cause tensions between the two countries, but he risks alienating Russia, which remains a major regional force in Syria and elsewhere.
No less ominous was Erdogan’s implied threat to Israel in his claim that “the resurrection of Aya Sofia heralds the liberation of the al-Aqsa Mosque.” His implication that Jerusalem, too, could become a religious battleground again is deliberately provocative. The Temple Mount is administered by Muslims, but Palestinians often claim that Israel will one day reclaim the holiest place in Judaism and demolish the al-Aqsa Mosque that stands there. There is no evidence for such claims, but they enjoy wide currency among Islamists.
[The church’s] magnificent mosaics—whose ultimate fate is now uncertain, given the Islamic prohibition of images—depict Mary and Jesus, both Jewish and both of whom are sacred in Islam as well as Christianity. The cathedral is dedicated to divine wisdom, but there is nothing wise in the chain of events that have made it once again a global center of gravity. Political theology always has the potential to erupt into political conflict. The Turkish démarche is (to coin a phrase) worse than a crime—it is a mistake. Making a museum into a mosque could prove to be Erdogan’s biggest mistake.