Hagia Sophia: object of admiration and contention

ISTANBUL, TURKEY, Stuart Williams- The Hagia Sophia, which the pope visits Sunday on his tour of Istanbul, has in the course of some 15 centuries of its history served as a church, a mosque and now a museum but still inflames passions.
Its status as a secular museum open to all allows believers of all faiths to enjoy its astonishing architecture. But periodic calls in the last years for it to serve again as a mosque have caused anger among Christians.

The great building was constructed in the sixth century as a church in the Christian Byzantine Empire, although a church had stood on the site at the confluence of the Golden Horn and the Bosphorus since the fourth century.
It was the seat of the Patriarchate of Constantinople -- the name of the city until it was officially changed to Istanbul in the twentieth century.
The Hagia Sophia played a crucial role in the schism between the eastern and western Christian Churches in 1054, when a cardinal of Rome laid on its altar a bill excommunication the Patriarch Michael I, sparking the split that continues to this day.
It was badly damaged in the notorious sacking of Constantinople by the crusaders in 1204 and briefly served as a Roman Catholic Cathedral before being reconsecrated as a Greek Orthodox church half a century later after the Byzantine recapture of the city.
When the Ottoman armies under Mehmet II conquered the city in 1453 he ordered the immediate conversion of the Hagia Sophia into a mosque. Islamic minarets were built around its Byzantine dome.
It served as a mosque until after the collapse of the Ottoman Empire when in the mid 1930s the authorities of the new Turkish state under secular leader Mustafa Kemal Ataturk ordered it to become a museum for all.
But under the rule of the Islamic-rooted Justice and Development Party (AKP), co-founded by President Recep Tayyip Erdogan which came to power in 2002, there have been noises about reconverting the Hagia Sophia into a mosque.
Turkish Deputy Prime Minister Bulent Arinc caused a furore in November 2013 when he indicated that he hoped to change the status of the Hagia Sophia.
"We are looking at a sad Hagia Sophia, but hopefully we will see it smiling again soon," Arinc said, describing the complex as the "Hagia Sophia Mosque".
Greece reacted furiously, saying such statements "are offending the religious feeling of millions of Christians."
The Turkish government has long been accused by its secular opponents of forcing Islamic values on the predominantly Muslim but strictly secular country.

Sunday, November 30th 2014
Stuart Williams

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