The first time the Hagia Sophia was converted into a mosque, following the 1453 conquest of Constantinople by the Ottoman Empire, the rulers of Moscow believed the Orthodox cathedral’s demise cleared the way for the Russian capital to become the pre-eminent centre of the Christian world.
More than five centuries later, Turkish president Recep Tayyip Erdogan’s backing for a campaign to turn the building from a museum back into a mosque has sparked anger in Moscow, raising a new grievance in a geopolitical relationship that has grown in recent years but remains riven by myriad disagreements.
Russian officials have described the mosque proposal as “an unacceptable violation of religious freedom”, while a spokesman for President Vladimir Putin called on Mr Erdogan to take into account Hagia Sophia’s “very deep sacred spiritual value” for Russians.
The war of words over the building’s future comes at a sensitive time for Turkish-Russian relations. While Mr Erdogan and Mr Putin have forged a close personal and political relationship in recent years, there are tensions over Syria and Libya, where they back opposing sides in the countries’ civil wars.
Mr Erdogan this year delayed the activation of an S-400 air defence system that he bought from Russia — a purchase that had triggered deep alarm in Nato — and has been seeking to strike liquefied natural gas deals with American producers that would reduce Turkey’s reliance on Russian gas.
The Turkish president’s move to return the Hagia Sophia to Islam has now added a religious dimension to Ankara’s already strained relationship with Moscow and provoked warnings from Russian religious leaders about a “return to the Middle Ages”.
“A threat against Hagia Sophia is a threat to . . . our spirituality and history,” said Patriarch Kirill, the leader of Russia’s Orthodox Church, the world’s largest by followers. “What could happen to Hagia Sophia will cause deep pain among the Russian people.”
Patriarch Krill, leader of the Russian Orthodox Church: ‘A threat against Hagia Sophia is a threat to . . . our spirituality and history’ © Sergei Chirikov/EPA/Shutterstock
Completed in 537 as the world’s largest orthodox cathedral, Hagia Sophia was briefly a Roman Catholic church in the 13th century before being converted into a mosque by the city’s Ottoman conqueror Mehmed II. In 1934, it was turned into a museum, a move symbolic of the radical secularising project launched by Mustafa Kemal Ataturk, the founder of the modern Turkish republic.
As Turkey has grappled with the fallout from the coronavirus crisis, Mr Erdogan has revived his support for the long-running campaign by nationalist and conservative groups to turn the building — part of a Unesco World Heritage site — back into a mosque. “God willing . . . we will pray in the Hagia Sophia,” he told a meeting of ruling party officials last month. Many analysts see the move as a tactic to divert attention from the economic hardship caused by the pandemic.
The country’s highest administrative court convened last week to rule on a legal petition that calls for the annulment of its museum status. A decision is expected soon.
Mr Erdogan has angrily rejected calls from Greece for the building’s status to remain unchanged and after a similar plea from the US, a senior official from Turkey’s ruling party said it was a matter for Turkey alone, adding: “We have no need for advice or appeals from outsiders.”
However, Russia’s disquiet has proved more challenging for Ankara. There has yet to be any direct response to the multiple warnings from Moscow about the change in Hagia Sophia’s status.
Relations between Turkey and Russia are “fragile”, said Kerim Has, a Moscow-based international relations analyst. “There is quite a complicated equilibrium in the region.”
Mr Has said Russia was unlikely to let the Hagia Sophia dispute turn into a serious crisis between the two countries. “It’s a domestic issue for Turkey and because of that, Russia wouldn’t risk the relations with Turkey in Libya, Syria, energy and trade over it.”
But he said the pressure from Russia reflected entwined Turkish and Russian interests. “In comparison to a decade ago, the Turkish political elite is more dependent on Russia in every sense,” he said. “So Russia finds itself more freely able to have a say on the Hagia Sophia right now.”
Russia accounts for about a third of the world’s Orthodox Christian believers and Moscow has long sought to portray itself as the church’s most powerful voice — from theologians in pre-Tsarist Russia who called Moscow the “Third Rome” after the fall of Constantinople to Mr Putin’s focus on rebuilding the influence of the church in 21st century Russia.
But that has often clashed with the historic role of Istanbul, as Constantinople is known today, as the belief’s geographical fulcrum, most recently two years ago when the Patriarch of Constantinople granted the Ukrainian branch of the church independence from Russia despite Moscow’s opposition.
“We’re asking our colleagues, deputies of the Grand National Assembly of Turkey to . . . display wisdom,” members of Russia’s parliament said in a statement this week.
Describing the Hagia Sophia as “a great Christian shrine” and “a symbol of peace”, the Russian lawmakers called for “every possible step to prevent any harm which may be done by hastily changing the status of a museum of global significance”.