By Kostas Onisenko
A series of announcements and statements by Russian hierarchs and politicians have come to light in recent days regarding the decision of the Turkish authorities to convert the Hagia Sophia Museum in Constantinople into an active mosque. The positions of the political representatives are quite restrained and revolve around the preservation of the monumental character of Hagia Sophia and the protection of historical memory. At the same time, they emphasize that the issue remains an “internal affair” of Turkey.
Analyzing the statements and announcements, it is concluded that the Russians are not going to risk any tension with Turkey because of Hagia Sophia, however, they seem to expect communication benefits from the situation that has developed. It is not safe to say that the Russian side is “happy” with recent developments, but it is no secret that on a tactical level it is entirely to be expected that they want to reap some benefits for themselves. At institutional level, Russian diplomacy seems to be trying to present as its own achievement the fact that Erdogan pledged to offer open access for all to Hagia Sophia as well as to maintain the temple in its current state. Behind the scenes, some hierarchs, addressing mainly the audience within the country, are trying to tarnish the reputation of the Ecumenical Patriarch by talking about a “split” in the Orthodox world that, according to these individuals, is related to the creation of the Church of Ukraine. This split, according to interviews and the social media, has weakened the reaction of the Orthodox world to Erdogan’s decision.
The spokesman for the Russian president, Russia’s most official voice after the President and the Minister of Foreign Affairs, Dmitry Peshkov, said that after President Putin’s communication with Erdogan, the Turkish leader pledged to offer open access for all, regardless of religion, to Hagia Sophia as well as to maintain the temple in its current state. A relevant announcement had preceded by the Russian Ministry of Foreign Affairs. “This is an internal affair of the Turkish Republic and we cannot interfere. It is important for us Hagia Sophia, as a UNESCO World Heritage Site, to be preserved in its current state and for those who visit Turkey to have access to it, whether they are tourists or anything else,” Mr Peshkov said, adding: “We have heard the statements from our Turkish counterparts, especially the Turkish president, that Hagia Sophia will be preserved and accessible. This gives us satisfaction,” Peshkov underlined.
The Russian authorities clearly seem to share the concern of the Russian faithful on the issue in question but remain in a strictly institutional framework regarding their public statements. “We are disappointed with the decision of the Turkish Republic to covnert Hagia Sophia into a mosque,” Russian Foreign Ministry Spokesperson Maria Zakharova said in a statement on July 13. Elsewhere, the statement said: “We expect that any action taken in connection with this unique monument will take into account its unique significance to the faithful around the world.”
The Primate of the Russian Church, Patriarch Kirill, appears more emotional in his statement. “Maintaining the current neutral status of Hagia Sophia, one of the greatest masterpieces of Christian civilization, a temple symbol for millions of Christians around the world, will contribute to the future development of relations between the peoples of Russia and Turkey, to the strengthening of religious peace and consent,” he said in his statement on July 6. He alluded to the occasional malfunctions in the relationship between the Moscow Patriarchate and the Ecumenical Patriarchate, stressing, however, that in this case his position does not differ from that of the Ecumenical Patriarchate. According to TASS Russian News Agency, Patriarch Kirill stated that at times Russia’s relations with Constantinople were “different, sometimes there were clearly difficult times, but the Russian people are viewing with bitterness and indignation the efforts to devalue / insult the spiritual heritage of the Church of Constantinople.”
This “solidarity” at institutional level is not typical of the views circulating these days as many hierarchs and people close to the Russian Church used the issue of Hagia Sophia as an occasion to attack the Ecumenical Patriarchate on the creation of the Church of Ukraine. The excerpt from the interview of Metropolitan Hilarion of Volokolamsk, head of the Moscow Patriarchate department for external church relations (DECR), is very characteristic. The Metropolitan conveys his message very masterfully: “Currently, some media outlets dealing with the Church in Ukraine and Russia express the thought that through this decision of the Turkish authorities God has punished Patriarch Bartholomew for the division of world Orthodoxy. I can in no way agree with this, for a slap was struck not against Patriarch Bartholomew’s face and the Church of Constantinople but against Orthodoxy worldwile and entire Christianity.”
With more or less sharp words, several priests of the Russian Church found an occasion to attack the Ecumenical Patriarchate on an issue that has nothing to do with Hagia Sophia and Erdogan’s decision. “I took this photo in the church of Hagia Sophia in August 2018. (…) A meeting of two Patriarchs was imminent, a discussion about Ukraine. Patriarch Bartholomew, unfortunately, did not want to hear the voice of the Russian Church. I cannot stop sensing the connection between what happened on that last day of August 2018 with today’s decision for the re-conversion of Hagia Sophia into a mosque,” archpriest Nikolai Balashov, deputy president of the DECR, said in a Facebook post.