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A view of Hagia Sophia or Ayasofya, a UNESCO World Heritage Site, which was a Byzantine cathedral before being converted into a mosque in Istanbul, Turkey, on June 30, 2020.MURAD SEZER/Reuters

Michael Coren is an author and columnist, and is ordained in the Anglican Church.

In 537 AD – as the story goes – Byzantine Roman Emperor Justinian first laid eyes on Hagia Sophia, the Church of the Holy Wisdom and the largest building in the world at the time, and declared edificial triumph over a biblical king: “Solomon, I have surpassed thee.” It was fair comment: The fourth church to be built on the spot in this city that was once called Byzantium and then Constantinople, the building he saw then was magnificent. Using stone from as far away as Egypt, more than 10,000 craftsmen spent six years constructing it.

We’re not entirely sure what Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan is saying right now, but it’s likely he doesn’t particularly care what Justinian, King Solomon or anybody else might think. In a decision that has attracted international disapproval, the hard-line nationalist announced last week that Istanbul’s 1,500-year-old Hagia Sophia, which has since become a museum, would become a mosque.

History is central to understanding the conflict. As the cathedral of the Patriarch of Constantinople before and after the Great Schism that divided Western and Eastern Christianity into Catholic and Orthodox, the Hagia Sophia became one of the most important Christian sites in the world. But in 1453, the Ottoman Turks took the city, and Sultan Mehmet II announced that the church would be known as the Great Mosque of Aya Sofya. The mihrab, indicating the direction of Mecca, replaced the altar; Mehmet’s successors made further alterations. Still, the Hagia Sophia remained sacred for Orthodox Christians the world over.

The Ottoman Empire declined in prestige over the centuries, and when the “sick man of Europe” finally passed on, Mustafa Kemal Ataturk – the founder of modern Turkey – initiated a relentless campaign of modernization and secularization. Part of his battle with the country’s conservative faithful was resolved in 1935, when the mosque became a museum; the Hagia Sophia has since become one of Turkey’s most popular tourist destinations, with almost four million visitors a year. It seemed a glorious compromise.

On Friday, however, Turkey’s top administrative court annulled the Hagia Sophia’s museum status. Within hours, the Islamic call to prayer was recited, and the museum’s social-media pages were shuttered. Lina Mendoni, Greece’s culture minister and a world-renowned archeologist, responded to the announcement angrily: “The nationalism displayed by President Erdogan takes his country back six centuries,” she said, adding that the ruling “absolutely confirms that there is no independent justice” in Turkey.

The Russian Orthodox Church claims that its concerns were never given proper hearing when the transition was being considered, while other Eastern Orthodox leaders have condemned the decision. UNESCO, under which the building was protected as a World Heritage Site, urged Turkey to delay any change until further discussion had taken place.

None of that seems to concern Mr. Erdogan, since the Islamic traditionalists who have long called for this will guarantee him power in once-secular Turkey. That tension – between the temporal and the spiritual – is at the heart of this provocative and potentially dangerous move.

Turkey is home to a modern, non-religious, educated class that looks to Europe and liberal democracies. But for those outside that class – and they are now perhaps the majority – Mr. Erdogan and his systematic and sometimes brutal policy of Islamization represents the fulfilment of a long-awaited ambition. The President sees himself as leading the Muslim world, just as did the Sultans before him – even if it sows profound division – and this irresponsible if unsurprising action is central to that.

Turkey also does not have an impressive record of tolerance for Christians. Only about 300,000 now live there, comprising a meagre 0.3 per cent of the population. The Armenian Genocide between 1914 and 1923 in Turkey saw the murder and expulsion of 1.5 million ethnic Armenians, almost all of them Christian; despite the overwhelming evidence, the Turkish government refuses to acknowledge or take responsibility for that mass atrocity.

As a museum, the Hagia Sophia did not satisfy everybody, and there were Christians as well as Muslims who imagined a once and future religiosity. But for most, it had become a vibrant symbol of moderation and understanding, and a meeting place for all people from all faiths and backgrounds. That vision has evaporated.

It remains to be seen if this will further isolate Turkey, and exactly how Vladimir Putin – the leader of Eastern Orthodoxy’s superpower – will choose to react. What we do know is that the world is a slightly darker and less gentle place than it was a week ago – one in which there is less of the spirit of Solomon’s famed sagacity, and more regression because of craven political nationalism.

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