Rice U. expert: Hagia Sophia should remain interfaith

Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan’s decision to convert Istanbul’s Hagia Sophia from a museum into a mosque is a lost opportunity for interfaith progress and only serves to “stir the pot,” according to an expert at Rice University.

“This move does not necessarily help bridge the divide between Muslims and Christians,” said Craig Considine, a scholar on Christian and Muslim relations and author of the new book “The Humanity of Muhammad: A Christian View.” “Prior to this conversion, this was a space that Christians and Muslims could both have stake in.”

The Hagia Sophia in Instanbul. Credit: 123rf.com/Rice University

Hagia Sophia was built in the sixth century as a Greek Orthodox cathedral and was turned into a mosque in the 15th century after Constantinople (modern-day Istanbul) was conquered by Ottoman Sultan Mehmet II. Since 1934, the UNESCO heritage site has functioned as a museum, signaling a shift toward secularism and religious coexistence, according to Considine.

“After the Ottoman Empire had fallen and the modern Turkish state emerged in the 1920s and 1930s, the leader of that revolution, Mustafa Kemal Atatürk, was a secular ruler and fond of separation of religion and state,” Considine said. “He converted the Hagia Sophia into a museum as a symbol of religious tolerance and reconciliation between Christians and Muslims.”

The history of Turkey since then, Considine said, has fluctuated between leaning more Islamic or more secular. Erdogan began his political career as “relatively secular” but in the last decade has used Islamic nationalism to carve out his own idenitity for Turkey, he said.

The Hagia Sophia decree will only remind people of past invasions and wars between Christians and Muslims, according to Considine. He argues that converting the museum into a mosque will alienate other communities and “put up more walls” between Christians and Muslims.

“I am disappointed to hear about the fate of the Hagia Sophia. This interfaith building should remain a museum,” Considine tweeted after the announcement. “Or, better yet, it could be a shared space for both Christians & Muslims to pray. Unfortunately, this poor decision only strengthens the ‘clash of civilizations.’”

The clash of civilizations is a theory that cultural and religious identities will be the primary source of conflict in modern geopolitics. Considine explains that the decree affects more than religious communities — it affects religious coexistence.

“There’s an idea that Western or Christian civilization and Islamic civilization are not compatible, which is not an accurate representation of history,” Considine said. “There have been plenty of moments and examples to show that these civilizations have worked together and flourished together.”


About Avery Ruxer Franklin

Avery is a media relations specialist in the Office of Public Affairs.