Pope Francis Faces Mecca

When Jorge Bergoglio became pope in March 2013, he took the name ‘Francis’. Asked why he chose the name–the first pope to do so–the Argentine bishop replied that he adopted the name out of his great admiration for Francis of Assisi (1182-1226). A lover of nature; a simple, humble monk who lived a life of poverty–is how Francis of Assisi is remembered today. Since assuming office, Pope Francis–like his medieval namesake–has demonstrated a humility and simple lifestyle that stands in stark contrast to that of previous popes. A lesser known fact about Francis of Assisi is his outreach to the Muslim world. In 1219, at the time of the Fifth Crusade, Francis of Assisi travelled to Egypt, crossed over into the Muslim enemy camp, and spent the next three weeks in the company of the sultan. No one knows what transpired between the sultan and Francis during this time. In my 1 April 2013 blog, I suggested that Pope Francis might emulate Francis of Assisi by reaching out to the Muslim world as well. And he has.

Pope Francis has just returned from a three-day visit to Turkey, a country with a Muslim majority of 98% and about 35,000 Roman Catholic Christians out of a population of 75 million. The pontiff’s trip began in controversy when the ‘humble’ pope became the first foreign dignitary to be a guest of Turkish President Erdogan at his new $615 million, 1000-room palace in Ankara–the largest presidential palace in the world and 30 times larger in size than the American White House. (A reprise of the ‘saint meets the sultan’, perhaps?) Environmental concerns and a court injunction to stop the work were ignored by the increasingly autocratic Erdogan. Those who felt uncomfortable with the pope’s visit to Erdogan’s illicit palace were told it was a matter of good etiquette. “Like any polite person, the pope will go to the place where the president wishes to receive him,” was the response from the Vatican.

Controversy arose again the following day in Istanbul when Pope Francis toured the Blue Mosque and stopped to pray alongside Istanbul’s Grand Mufti Rahmi Yaran. It was the pope’s idea for the two of them to stop and pray, reportedly. (I had the good fortune of being able to tour the magnificent Blue Mosque when I was in Turkey nine years ago. The picture of the Blue Mosque below is taken from a postcard I bought in Istanbul at the time.)

Blue Mosque

The Blue Mosque was built by Sultan Ahmet I (r. 1603-17) who wanted to erect a mosque to rival the beauty and majesty of the nearby Hagia Sophia, Christendom’s largest and finest cathedral for over a thousand years. The mosque takes its name from the tens of thousands of blue tiles used to construct its interior.

At one point during their tour of the Blue Mosque, the grand mufti and the pope, turning towards Mecca, stopped to pray. Hands extended in the Muslim way, the grand mufti said a Muslim prayer. Hands clasped in front of him, Pope Francis stood beside him, silent, head bowed. (The pope looked very much the junior partner of the two, I thought.) Lest the Catholic pope’s actions be construed as praying to the Muslim Allah, the Vatican hastily labelled the pope’s gesture “a moment of silent adoration of God.”

Many view the pope’s “gesture” as nothing more than a demonstration of inter-religious harmony and wonder who could possibly take issue with it. Other see it–and I include myself–as yet another instance of inter-religious outreach going in the same direction. I don’t recall hearing that the grand mufti later accompanied the pope to Istanbul’s Catholic Cathedral where the two of them prayed together.

Is inter-religious outreach accomplishing what it is intended to do, that is, create religious harmony between people? Anyone watching the daily news knows that’s not happening. The place where inter-religious dialogue is having a visible impact is, ironically, in the Church. Churches are inviting Muslims to address their synods, to preach from their pulpits, to pray on prayer rugs in their church hallways. This past June, Allah was invoked for the very first time at the Vatican in the papal gardens behind St. Peter’s Basilica, well away from any Christian iconography such as crosses. Inter-religious outreach is changing the Church, not the Muslim world. And the changes underway have only just begun, I suspect.


Istanbul: Connecting Continents, Changing cultures

Asia as seen from the European side of the Bosphorus
The inauguration of the rail tunnel under the Bosphorus this past Tuesday brought to mind my own trip between European Istanbul and Asian Istanbul eight years ago. At that time, the only way across the Bosphorus Strait was via two bridges. My husband and I were heading to Turkey’s capital, Ankara, by the Istanbul-Ankara evening express train and needed to get to the train station which is located on the Asian side of the city. We crossed the Bosphorus via the Fatih Sultan Mehmet Bridge. I still recall the thrill I felt when our van reached the other side and I saw the sign, “Welcome to Asia.” In less than an hour’s drive from our hotel in the Sultanahmet district of European Istanbul, we had crossed over to an entirely different continent, Asia. It was mind-boggling at the time!

The construction of a tunnel under the Bosphorus had been the dream of the Ottoman ruler Abdoul Mejid back in 1860. Turkey’s current prime minister, Recep Tayyip Erdogan, revived the sultan’s scheme as one of his ambitious mega-projects for Istanbul. That dream became a reality on October 29th, the 90th anniversary of the founding of the Republic of Turkey. The first sea tunnel to connect two continents is called the Marmaray Tunnel, a conflation of the Sea of Marmara and the Turkish word for rail, ray. At the grand opening of the rail tunnel, Erdogan is said to have described the Marmaray as a “project for the whole of humanity,” a tunnel which “connects past and future, as well as connecting continents.” Erdogan’s hyperbole was not over-the-top. The opening of a rail tunnel 200 feet below the sea bed of the Bosphorus linking Europe and Asia is a truly significant engineering feat, one rich in symbolism. But, as for the new tunnel finally “connecting continents,” that’s true only in a physical, not a cultural, sense.

On my trip to Turkey, as the plane made its descent into Istanbul, I sat “glued” to the window, fascinated by the ancient city that loomed ever larger below me. There was Justinian’s magnificent Aya Sofya, the Blue Mosque, the Mosque of Suleyman the Magnificent, other mosques whose names I did not yet know. I had never before seen a city like this before! Today, magnificent mosques are no longer unique to Istanbul. Immigration from the Muslim East is changing the face of post-Christian Europe. France is home to Europe’s largest Muslim population. Yet, while 64% of the population identifies as Roman Catholic, only 4.5% are practicing Catholics. In short, France has too many churches, too little money, and most crucial of all, too few worshippers. France’s Muslims, on the other hand, are growing in numbers, but have little space for prayer. Inevitably, many of France’s churches end up being sold, and in many cases, Muslims are the buyers. It has been estimated that Europe’s churches are being bought up and turned into mosques at the rate of two per week.

It’s the same story in Germany, home to Europe’s second largest Muslim community. Since 2000, more than 400 Roman Catholic churches have been closed and another 700 will likely be closed in the coming years. Over 100 Protestant churches have been closed as well. The Muslim community, in stark contrast, has built 40 mega-mosques that can accommodate over 1000 worshippers at one time.

The situation is similar in the UK where Islam has replaced Anglicanism as the dominant religion. At least 10,000 churches have been closed in Britain since 1960 and another 4,000 are set to be closed by 2020.

One vivid recollection of my time in Istanbul is that of hearing the muezzin’s plaintive, but not unpleasant, call to prayer, known as the adhan, particularly the call to prayer in the still-dark, early hours of the morning. This too is no longer unique to the East. In June of this year, a mosque in North Rhine-Westphalia, Germany began sounding the muezzin’s call to prayer from an outdoor loudspeaker mounted on the roof of the mosque, five times a day, seven days a week. Several other mosques have obtained approval to follow suit. Europe’s Muslim population wants to be able to observe Muslim holidays as well. Several cities in Germany, such as Hamburg and Bremen, have given Muslim workers and students these days off. Muslim immigration to the West has transformed–indeed, continues to transform–the face of Europe. And it’s not just immigrants from the East pressing for change. The UK’s Prime Minister David Cameron has just announced his intention for the UK to be the first non-Muslim nation to introduce a shari’a compliant bond. Cameron would like London ultimately to challenge Dubai’s position as the world centre of Islamic finance.

For me, the newly-opened Marmaray evokes images of surging crowds of passengers heading in opposite directions, some hurrying east towards Asia, others pushing their way west in the direction of Europe. It’s obvious to many which way Europe is heading. But what about Turkey? Under Erdogan’s leadership, Turkey is looking less and less like the secular republic established by Atatürk. Just the other day, four female members of the Turkish parliament defied the law banning headscarves (a law instituted by Atatürk), a seemingly small infraction, but one with great political significance. Turkey, Western observers note, is re-Islamizing. The influence of Islam on post-Christian Europe and Turkey is growing. Does this mean they have a common destination?

Istanbul’s Hagia Sophia: Museum or Mosque?

I once spent eight days in Istanbul, an incredibly fascinating city! One of the things I liked to do while I was there was stroll from my hotel over to nearby Sultanahmet Park in the early evening, sit down on a park bench facing Istanbul’s renowned Hagia Sofia, and as daylight faded, reflect–on the beauty of the ancient basilica, on the many changes that have occurred in the region since Turkey was known as ‘Asia Minor’ and Istanbul was called ‘Constantinople’, on life in general. (Some people don’t find the rusty-pink exterior of the Hagia Sophia beautiful, but I do.)  Like millions of other visitors to the city, I had made a trip to Istanbul’s Hagia Sofia, now the Ayasofya museum, a top priority and had explored its awesome interior shortly after arriving. Christendom’s most glorious church for over one thousand years didn’t disappoint. Its builder, the Byzantine Emperor Justinian, had wanted to erect a church that would surpass Solomon’s Temple in Jerusalem.  I think he must have come close.


Although my trip to Istanbul took place a mere seven and a half years ago, the Turkey I visited is not the Turkey that exists today. Whether future tourists will experience the same Hagia Sophia  I and millions of others have in the past is now uncertain.  A commission of the Turkish Parliament recently accepted a citizen’s petition from one Talib Bozkurt to have the Hagia Sophia, or Ayasofya Museum, reopened as a mosque.  The petition is currently under consideration.

One tends to forget that Istanbul (formerly Constantinople) was a Christian city for 1123 years. The building known as the Hagia Sophia (in Greek), Sancta Sophia (in Latin), and Holy Wisdom (in English) was constructed as a place of Christian worship. The edifice we see today is actually the third basilica built at this location.  The first basilica burned down in 360 and the second was destroyed in the riots of 532.  When the third basilica, Justinian’s basilica, was completed in 537, it was acknowledged as the most impressive structure in the world. In 1453, in what must have been a “9.11” event for fifteenth-century Christians, Mehmet II and his Muslim forces captured Constantinople and turned Christendom’s most glorious church into a mosque.

And thus it remained for 481 years. But things changed with the arrival on the scene of Mustafa Kemal Atatürk, “Father of the Turks,” creator of modern Turkey.  In 1922, the Ottoman Sultanate was abolished and a year later Turkey became a secular republic with Atatürk as its first president.  Atatürk set about modernizing and secularizing Turkey through a program of revolutionary social and political reforms.  The emancipation of women, the closing of Islamic courts and replacement of shariah with secular civil codes, the closing of the madrassas, the introduction of Western dress, the replacement of Arabic script with the Latin alphabet:  these were some of the Westernizing transformations wrought by Atatürk. Turkey’s reformer also encouraged the visual arts, banned, limited, or suppressed under his Islamic predecessors.  In 1849, the Sultan Abdülmecid, for example, had ordered the splendid mosaics in the Hagia Sophia’s interior to be covered over with white plaster. Atatürk, in contrast, believed that the mosaics should be revealed and ordered their restoration, a long, arduous, and costly enterprise.  Atatürk regarded the Hagia Sophia as a monument to all civilizations and therefore meant to be accessible to all and sundry, not just to Muslims. To this end, he signed an order in 1934 making the Hagia Sophia a museum, the Ayasofya Museum.

Unfortunately, the days of the Hagia Sophia as a museum may be numbered. Since Bozkurt’s citizen petition, fifteen other petitions have been submitted. It’s hard not to believe that the current Turkish Prime Minister Erdogan himself supports such a move, having stated back in the 1990s that “Ayasofya should be opened to Muslim prayers.”  Atatürk had prohibited public prayer in the Ayasofya in 1934.

Seeing Istanbul’s Hagia Sophia reconsecrated as a mosque is not unthinkable.  The fate of the historic Hagia Sofia in Nicea (now Iznik, Turkey)–a scaled-down version of the Hagia Sofia in Istanbul–is instructive.  The Hagia Sophia in Iznik also holds great significance for Christians.  It was in this location that the first ecumenical council, the Council of Nicea, was held in 325.  And it was in this very basilica that the bishops of the Eastern Roman Empire gathered to decide the Iconoclast controversy in 787. Despite its historical significance for Christians, in November 2011 the ancient basilica was declared a mosque.  And just last year, Turkey’s Deputy Prime Minister Bulent Arinc proposed reconsecrating as a mosque the Hagia Sofia church in the city of Trabzon on the Black Sea–like the Hagia Sofia in Istanbul,  currently a museum.  Interestingly enough, not even the Muslim leaders of Trabzon are in favour of Arinc’s proposed change.


Mosaic of Christ the Pantocrator Flanked by the Empress Zoë and Constantine IX Monomachus

Turkey is currently undergoing re-Islamization. With the Muslim prohibition against depiction of the human body, the ancient mosaics of Istanbul’s Hagia Sophia like the one above would again be in jeopardy, were the museum to become a mosque once more.  The spiritual leader of the world’s 300 million Eastern Orthodox Christians, the Ecumenical Patriarch of Constantinople, Bartholomew I, has spoken out against the proposed return of the Hagia Sophia to mosque status. He wants the Ayasofya to remain a museum.  Not just Eastern Orthodox Christians but Christians everywhere should lend the Patriarch their support.  I would like to think that this article is part of that support.