‘Threat to Christian civilization’: Russian Patriarch warns Ankara against dividing people by turning Hagia Sophia into mosque

People visit Hagia Sophia in Istanbul, Turkey, on June 30, 2020 Reuters / Murad Sezer People visit Hagia Sophia in Istanbul, Turkey, on June 30, 2020
If Turkey decides to convert Istanbul’s Hagia Sophia, now a museum and originally a Byzantine Christian church, into an active mosque, this could sow discord between Christians and Muslims, the Russian Orthodox Church has warned.

“A threat to Hagia Sophia is a threat to the entire Christian civilization,” Patriarch Kirill, the head of the Russian Orthodox Church, said in his address, pointing to the huge religious significance the 6th century temple played in the history of Orthodoxy and Russia.

Hagia Sophia played a certain role in the baptism of the Kievan Rus, a state that spanned parts of modern-day Belarus, Ukraine, and Russia, and adopted Christianity in the late 10th century. According to the old chronicles, the ‘heavenly beauty’ of the temple captivated envoys sent by Prince Vladimir the Great and their accounts influenced his decision to adopt Christianity and baptize his nation.

“The image of this church has become deeply ingrained in our culture and history,” the patriarch said, adding that “Hagia Sophia remains a great Christian shrine for every Russian Orthodox believer” to this day.

Converting it into a mosque once again – something the temple now-turned-museum was during the times of the Ottoman Empire – could heighten religious tensions inside Turkey and sour its relations with some other nations, the Russian Orthodox Church head warned.

“It is a duty of every civilized state to maintain balance: to reconcile society, and not aggravate discords in it; to help unite people, and not divide them,” Kirill said, adding that the move mulled by Ankara would “inflict great pain on the Russian people” and potentially hurt relations between Moscow and Ankara as well.

Earlier, the Kremlin also urged Ankara to consider the temple’s cultural and historical significance before following its plans. Yet, it also said that the issue is the “Turkish Republic’s internal affair.”

The developments come as Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan announced that the prospect of the iconic temple turning into an active mosque is not unlikely. A Turkish court is expected to pass its judgment on the issue later this month.