The Hagia Sophia--once a church, later
a mosque, now secularized and a museum
Perhaps one of the strongest symbols of secularization in Turkey is the status of the Hagia Sophia. Built as a Christian basilica by the Emperor Justinian in 562 (the third church of the name on the site), it was converted to a Mosque within days of the fall of Constantinople to the Turks in 1453. (Constantinople fell Sunday, May 29th and Mehmed II ordered the building to be readied for Friday Prayers by June 3rd.) The building remained a mosque until 1931 when it was closed and then reopened as a museum—which it is today—in 1935. Muslims want it to be returned to Muslim worship; Orthodox Christians want it returned to status as the patriarchal Church of the Greek Orthodox Patriarchs. Its secular status pleases no one but tourists yet it is a symbol in an intolerant world of tolerance, albeit imposed tolerance.
I would hate to see religious tolerance imposed on our society by such rigid secularization, but religious groups, if they value their freedoms, need to remember that they cannot dictate policies that restrict the liberties of others. Our society does not have an accord on such volatile subjects as abortion, same-sex unions, gay adoption, embryonic stem-cell research, artificial insemination, surrogate parenting, voluntary sterilization, end-of-life choices. These are difficult choices and while religions have the right to educate those of the public who are willing to be educated, they should not expect to have their moral positions imposed—even by a political majority—upon those whose doctrinal and moral beliefs are different. If the citizenry cannot discipline themselves sufficiently to allow a moral consensus that transcends religious particularity to evolve then we may find ourselves in a situation like Turkey where restrictions will be placed on the public role of religion to protect the harmony of the larger society. I would hate to see that; it would be disappointing to those of our national founders who ideally thought that such processes would work in rational and democratic ways without the necessity of banishing religion to the private sphere, but it is our choice. Freedom does not come without responsibilities.