By Harut Sassounian
Publisher, The California Courier
The recently elected Patriarch of Turkey, Sahak Mashalian, continues his controversial public statements thus antagonizing the Armenian community of Istanbul and Armenians worldwide. A few months ago he made critical remarks regarding the resolution adopted by the U.S. Congress recognizing the Armenian Genocide.
It is clear from the Patriarch’s statements that he wants to ingratiate himself to Turkish authorities and particularly Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan. Our repeated advice to him not to stick his nose in subjects that are not his responsibility has fallen on deaf ears. He does not seem to understand that he needs to remain quiet.
The whole world is aware of the controversy revolving around Pres. Erdogan’s repeated statements to reconvert the Hagia Sophia historic church to a mosque. In 1935, Ataturk had changed the status of the mosque to a museum.
Erdogan’s statements had raised a worldwide controversy particularly in Greece and among Greeks worldwide. Hagia Sophia was designated as a UNESCO World Cultural Heritage site. Changing its status to a mosque will certainly anger people around the world.
This is the controversy that the Armenian Patriarch has foolishly dived into, just to please Erdogan. In recent days, there has been a lot of criticism about the Armenian Patriarch’s controversial suggestion.
Had the Armenian Patriarch any wisdom he would have first consulted with the prominent members of the Armenian community in Istanbul asking for their opinion. More importantly, he should have asked for the advice of the Ecumenical Greek Patriarch Bartholomew of Constantinople. Furthermore, has the Armenian Patriarch thought about asking for the advice of Islamic leaders in Istanbul whether it would be acceptable for them to practice their Islamic religion in the same structure as the Christians? To our knowledge, there is no such site in the world and the reason is that this is an unacceptable practice for Muslims.
The Armenian Patriarch’s heretical suggestion would also antagonize the Muslims in Turkey and President Erdogan. So much for the Patriarch trying to ingratiate himself to the Turkish authorities!
Patriarch Mashalian is inadvertently supporting the change of the status of Hagia Sophia from a museum to a mosque with a private area set aside for Christian worshippers. The only thing the Turkish authorities will conclude from the Patriarch’s statement is that he is in favor converting the church to a mosque, ignoring his suggestion that a corner of the mosque be allocated for Christian worship. How would the Armenian Patriarch react if someday the Turkish government decides to convert the Armenian Akhtamar church near Lake Van (now officially classified as a tourist site) to a mosque, allowing a small room for Christian worship?
To make matters worse, Patriarch Mashalian made his statement through a series of tweets. I wonder what prompted him to use the twitter to make such an announcement with serious consequences. “The Hagia Sophia should be opened to worship,” he said, stating that it is big enough for that purpose while suggesting a space for Christians. “Let the world applaud our religious peace and maturity. May Hagia Sophia become a symbol of the peace of humanity in our era.”
The Patriarch further stated that humanity was praying for such unity and suggested sharing the dome of Hagia Sophia: “Even though our faiths are different, don’t we believe in the same God?” Having been a place of worship for Christians for 1,000 years and another 500 years for Muslims, he stated that Hagia Sophia won’t mind it. “Hagia Sophia was built with the labor of ten thousand workers at an astronomical cost,” he said pointing out that for over 500 years numerous repairs have been made on the iconic building by the Fatih Sultan Foundation. He stressed that their aim was to preserve it as a place of worship, “not just a museum.” He said it would be more fitting as a place of worship where believers could kneel down in prayer in awe of the structure, rather than a touristic site full of visitors rushing around.” The Patriarch’s statement was immediately publicized by the Turkish media.
The first harsh reaction to the Patriarch’s naïve suggestion came from MHP (Nationalist Movement Party) leader Devlet Bahceli who ridiculed the idea that “Hagia Sophia is a mosque on Friday and a church on Sunday."
The Hagia Sophia Cathedral is one of the most significant religious sites particularly for Greeks. It was built in 537 AD by the Byzantine Empire. It was the world's largest building and an engineering marvel of its time. Hagia Sophia was converted into an imperial mosque in 1453, following the Ottoman occupation of Constantinople, nowadays Istanbul. The mosque was then converted to a museum in 1935 by Ataturk’s decree.
There is an interesting historical Armenian connection to Hagia Sophia. According to Wikipedia, “after the great earthquake of 25 October 989, which collapsed the Western dome arch, Emperor Basil II asked for the Armenian architect Trdat, creator of the cathedrals of Ani and Argina, to direct the repairs.... The extent of the damage required six years of repair and reconstruction; the church was re-opened on 13 May 994.”
We want to conclude by reassuring our Greek friends that the Armenian Patriarch’s undesirable statement does not represent the wishes of the Armenian people.