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Hagia Sophia: Islam versus Christianity

The grand old Church in Istanbul, Turkey, Hagia Sophia, which was converted into a mosque in the last week of July, 2020 which had earlier been converted into a museum and now again into a mosque has raised commotion all over the world. The case of this museum, which had remained in this form for about 86 years now and used to attract thousands of tourists daily, was before the court, because Muslims claimed that it was a mosque before being declared a museum, hence its status should be restored and it should be declared as a mosque again.

The President of Turkey, Recep Tayyip Erdogan, had lost the election of Mayor of Istanbul in 1994 on this very issue. Therefore, Erdogan’s party rejoiced the decision. However, the decision might have dismayed the secular sections of Turkish society, it was hailed by the Islamists all over the country.

The Friday sermon, which this writer believes was delivered in Hagia Sophia after more than eight and a half decades, was delivered on 24<sup>th</sup> July 2020 by Ali Arbas, the Director of Religious Affairs, government of Turkey. He appeared in the ceremonial dress to deliver the sermon and was holding an Ottoman sword in hand reading verses about conquests from Holy Quran. He did not hide his resentment when ‘he damned the one who turned the Hagia into Museum.’ He was obviously referring to Mustapha Kamal Pasha in whose Presidency the Hagia was converted into museum.

This incident did not invoke support in Muslim World. The Europe showed concern and Greece said that this move would burn bridges between Turkey and the West.

The President of Turkey being conscious of diplomatic and related ramifications of this incident, has advised the concerned officers of the government to use hides and curtains to cover Christian mosaics and symbols during prayers. The amusing part of this direction is that a mosque is always open for prayers at least individually. There will be fixed times for five times prayers and occasions of congregations prescribed in Islam.

The Hagia Sophia episode is going to open the doors of discussions and debates which would have policy implications in today’s multi-cultural and pluri-religious states and societies. In the midst of responses and debates on the event, old wounds and even tyrannies buried in histories would be unlatched. It may jolt the gradual struggle of civilized world towards peace, brotherhood and human development. The armed groups and fundamentalist extremist elements would try to assert their authority and disturb the peace and tranquility in different parts of the world.

This credit should go to First World countries including the UN in ensuring the religious tolerance and respect for places of religion and worship. In different parts of the world, interestingly, many places of worship and religion are acquiring the sites of attraction for tourists. This shows the widening of minds and opening the horizons of imagination.

It may be interesting to note the changing of nomenclature of Hagia over the centuries. Hagia Sophia was built in year 537 A.D in the Byzantine architectural style. It was used first as an Eastern Orthodox Church. In view of its magnificence and grandeur it became very popular and attracted Christians from outside the country as well. However, in 12o4 A. D. it was changed as Roman Catholic Cathedral. Again, in the year 1261 A.D. it was again changed as Eastern Orthodox Church. It remained in that position almost for about two hundred years. In 1453 A.D. Ottomans conquered Istanbul and converted Hagia Sophia as a mosque.

With the dismemberment of Ottoman empire and emergence of Turkey as a Secular, Democratic, Independent Republic, the first President Mustapha Kamal Pasha Attaturk converted the Sophia Mosque in 1934 into a museum. In the year 1985 UNESCO declared it as world historical heritage.

Western scholars and commentators have raised the issue in different fora that Muslims enjoy great religious freedom in western countries, was there any protest from them in these countries? In modern times these and other related questions will be raised on this issue. Nonetheless, it may not be ignored that in many a prominent Islamic country this issue has been raised and discussed.

In this regard the conquest of Jerusalem by the Second Islamic Caliph, Omar Ibn e Khatab is provided as an illustration to the point. In the year 634 A.D. when he conquered Jerusalem and entered the precincts he wanted to offer prayers. The Father of the Church which is located nearby offered to open the church to enable him to offer prayers. Omar refused and offered prayers in a nearby open ground and told the Father, "if I had offered prayers in the Church it would become a precedent. After I had left other Muslims would come and start praying in the Church."

However, such noble gestures are rare..