Hagia Sophia decision by President Erdogan evokes ‘grief and dismay’ from World Council of Churches

The head of the Geneva-based World Council of Churches has written to Turkey’s President Recep Tayyip Erdogan expressing “grief and dismay” from WCC members at his decision to convert the world famous Hagia Sophia into a mosque.

Rev. Prof. Dr Ioan Sauca, interim WCC general secretary, sent the letter to the Turkish president on 11 July noting that since 1934, “Hagia Sophia has been a place of openness, encounter and inspiration for people from all nations and religions.

He said it has been a “powerful expression” of Turkey’s “commitment to secularism and inclusion and of its desire to leave behind the conflicts of the past.”

Hagia Sophia was first built 1,500 years ago as an Orthodox Christian cathedral and was converted into a mosque after the Ottoman conquest in 1453. In 1934, however, it became a museum and is now a UNESCO World Heritage site.

Sauca wrote, “I am obliged to convey to you the grief and dismay of the World Council of Churches – and of its 350 member churches in more than 110 countries, representing more than half a billion Christians around the world – at the step you have just taken.

“By deciding to convert the Hagia Sophia back to a mosque you have reversed that positive sign of Turkey’s openness and changed it to a sign of exclusion and division.”

Sauca said that regrettably, the decision in Turkey was taken without notice or discussion with UNESCO regarding the impact of the decision on Hagia Sophia’s universal value recognized under the World Heritage Convention.

“Over the years, the World Council of Churches has made great efforts to support the active engagement of its member churches in interreligious dialogue, in order to build bridges of mutual respect…between the different religious communities.

“Furthermore, in times of challenge, the WCC together with its member churches has spoken out in defense and support of other religious communities, including Muslim communities, for their rights and integrity to be respected,” said Sauca.

Converting such an “emblematic place” as Hagia Sophia from a museum back to a mosque will “inevitably create uncertainties, suspicions and mistrust, undermining all our efforts to bring people of different faiths together at the table of dialogue and cooperation.”

The WCC also fears the decision “will encourage the ambitions of other groups elsewhere that seek to overturn the existing status quo and to promote renewed divisions between religious communities”.

WCC, oikoumene.org