Take yourself back into the 6th Century and imagine the greatest of the Byzantine Emperors, Justinian I (482-565) building an imposing church, Hagia Sophia (meaning “Holy Wisdom” in Greek), in Constantinople, the heart of Orthodox Christianity. Completed in 537, the majesty and grandeur of Hagia Sophia was comparable to the Jewish temple in Jerusalem or to St Peter’s Basilica in Rome.

Then, imagine the Byzantine empire, after centuries of heroic resistance, succumbing to the armies of Islamic Jihad on 28 May 1453; its defeated Emperor, Constantine XI, being taken to the altar of Hagia Sophia, and cut down by the forces of the Ottoman Sultan Mehmet II. The Sultan, upon first entering the church ordered a muezzin to issue the Islamic call to prayer, azaan, and later erected four minarets to reinforce the position that the 936-year-old church had been converted into a mosque.

To history students of Islamic conquests or to the Hindu, Buddhist, Jain, Zoroastrian, Christian or Jewish pilgrims, desecration and forced conversion of their religious places into mosques were all too familiar. In fact, now, it’s also a common knowledge that the founder of Islam, Muhammad (AD 570-632) himself occupied the most sacred site, Ka?aba, that used to be the shrine of hundreds of Arabian tribal idols. Those idols were forcibly evicted for the establishment of a monotheist religion, Islam.

And yet, following the setting up of the Turkish Republic in place of the Ottoman Empire,
a great Turkish reformer, Mustafa Kemal Ataturk, emerged from the same (Islamic) society and resolved to partially correct what was historically one of the most reprehensible crimes against another faith. Ironically, Islam also claimed itself to be congenitally related to Christianity as “People of the Book, Ahl al-Kitab.”

In 1935, Ataturk, while launching the country on a more secular path, changed the status of Hagia Sophia into a museum. This was a middle-way solution that would enable people of all faiths, or none, to visit the cathedral and know the history. Arduously, embedded mosaics depicting Jesus, Mary and other Christian saints -- earlier plastered over to honor the Islamic rules -- were uncovered through restoration work. A UNESCO World Heritage site, Hagia Sophia was the most popular museum in Turkey, drawing around 4 million visitors a year. That status suddenly changed, again.

On Friday, 10 July 2020, the president of Turkey, Recep Tayyip Erdogan, formally converted Hagia Sophia back into a mosque and declared it open for Muslim worship. Prior to doing so, he prepared a legal ground by securing a high court order invalidating the 1934 decision that had made the religious landmark a museum.

It is clear he did this not out of enormous personal religiosity, but to rile up his conservative base and the Islamists who were demanding this conversion for some time. It’s also speculated he wanted to deflect people’s attention from the coronavirus and economy-related woes.

Nevertheless, it’s amazing how the president of a country that was considered a bridge between the Muslim East and the Christian West and a member of the NATO would take such measures to satisfy the primordial 7th century Islamic instincts of a section of people.

For Christians around the world, the loss of Hagia Sophia must have been a wound festering until now. In modern times too, any civil person will bemoan the forcible conversion of a building that had roots stretching all the way back to late-antiquity: Muhammad was born 33 years after construction of this cathedral.

Still, we find conciliatory messages coming from top Christian establishments. Since Hagia Sophia had served as a place of worship for Christians for 900 years and then for Muslims for 500 years, according to Patriarch Bartholomew I, the spiritual leader of the world’s Orthodox Christians, this cathedral could have functioned as “a place and symbol of encounter, dialogue and peaceful coexistence of peoples and cultures” to express mutual understanding and solidarity between Christianity and Islam.

It’s true, as the spokespersons of the Islamists suggested, the Muslim mosques were also desecrated and destroyed in many parts of the world. However, the Europeans and Christians have opened up their societies more widely for Muslims and mosques than the other way around.

Back in India, as the Ayodhya-Babri Masjid dispute was raging, we were reminded by some Islamic scholars that the Islamic laws did not allow construction of a mosque on an illegally acquired land or by destroying other religious structures. “Prayers offered at such mosques are not accepted under Quran and Sharia.”

Conversion of Hagia Sophia into a mosque will now turn millions of Christians across the world against Islam. This move symbolized proselytizing domination rather than integration or peaceful coexistence.

Dr. Binoy Shanker Prasad hails from Darbhanga and currently resides with his family in Dundas, Ontario (Canada). A former UGC teacher fellow (at JNU) in India and Fulbright scholar in the USA, he has taught politics and authored conference papers, articles and chapters on Bihar in previously published books in the United States, India, and Canada.

Dr. Prasad administers a Facebook page: https://www.facebook.com/OverseasBihari and has sponsored “Aware Citizenship Campaign” at a micro-level in his home-town.