Pope Benedict apparently made a peaceful visit to Istanbul, Turkey this week. The papers are reporting that the theologian is also quite a diplomat. Although the primary purpose of his visit – and the more important one for Christians – was to meet with Ecumenical Patriarch Bartholomew, the world’s attention is not surprisingly focused on his conciliatory overtures towards Islam both in what he said and in the symbolical respect he showed towards the religion by various visits to Muslim holy sites.
Though the controversy surrounding the Regensburg lecture is dying down, and no doubt seems to have been brought to a substantial end by this visit, Christians with a sense of historical irony cannot help but be reminded of the devastation the Orthodox have experienced – especially in Turkey – as a result of the triumph of the “religion of peace”.
Consider Hagia Sophia, at one time the Great Church of Constantinople and central temple of Eastern Christianity. It was built in the 5th century and survived for nearly a thousand years before it was desecrated and forcibly converted into a mosque in 1453. Since that time the Patriarchate has been held captive both by the Ottoman Empire and by the secular, but still very anti-Christian, Turkish government. In 1935 the building was turned into a museum, some of the original Byzantine iconography uncovered, and rendered a secular building.
To understand the significance of Hagia Sophia and what it says about the history of Islamic violence one might imagine an alternative timeline in which the Kaaba in Mecca – which has always been located within a mosque dedicated to the worship of Allah – was stolen from Muslim control and consecrated a Christian church by invading Christian armies. One might imagine a contemporary Christian country in Arabia in which Muslims are a persecuted minority. Picture the obvious irony – or should I say hypocrisy – of such a nation voicing its opposition to remarks made by senior Islamic clerics as to the history of Christian violence. Image its secular and religious officials, who completely control and seriously limit the actions of Arabic Muslims, marching in the streets of this one time Islamic nation calling for the execution of those clerics who cannot forget the persecution of their brothers and the desecration of their houses of worship.