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Keynote Remarks at the Ecumenical Prayer Service Lamenting the Reconversion of Hagia Sophia

His Eminence Archbishop Elpidophoros of America

Keynote Remarks 

Ecumenical Prayer Service 

Lamenting the Reconversion of Hagia Sophia

 Your Eminences, Excellencies, and Graces, 

Distinguished Guests,

Ladies and Gentlemen, 

Dear Brothers and Sisters in Christ, 

I warmly greet you all this evening in the spirit of common lamentation, reconciliation, and witness as we honor, in prayer and thought, the magnificent cathedral of Hagia Sophia in Constantinople, currently Istanbul. I pray that you and your families are all healthy and well as we continue to return to public life with the abatement of the pandemic. 

I thank God for granting us this fitting opportunity to pray together in support of Hagia Sophia with this blessed and inspiring service. We are grateful to In Defense of Christians for co-hosting this prayer service with our Greek Orthodox Archdiocese of America, the fraternal participation of our ecumenical brothers and sisters, as well as all those present tonight who bear witness to the enduring beauty and wisdom of Hagia Sophia as a space that preserves creative genius, celebrates diversity, and affirms religious freedom. 

We are gathered in this marvelous daughter church of the Church of Churches, the Hagia Sophia, in our Nation’s capital, to lament and reflect on the reconversion of the Great Church of Christ into a mosque during the summer of 2020. 

Even with our diverse interreligious, multicultural, and personal backgrounds, we come together as one in order to speak on behalf of the Great Church – ἡ Μεγάλη Ἐκκλησία – as we resolutely assert that Hagia Sophia is a place of human encounter anddialogue, a precious gift to the whole world, whose essence is best manifested when its doors are open to all people and all faiths and whose light can be experienced by and shine upon all. 

In spite of the reconversion, which has resulted in the marginalization of Orthodox and Byzantine architectural, iconographic, and liturgical traditions, signaling a discrimination against minority religious freedoms, Hagia Sophia remains undoubtedly a unique and unparalleled symbol of Orthodoxy, Hellenism, and Byzantine heritage that finds its realization and culmination in the Patriarchal Throne of Constantinople today. However, by functioning as a museum, Hagia Sophia’s essence is spotlighted for all the world to witness, first hand, and celebrate the spiritual, artistic, and aesthetic heights attained by humankind through divine grace.

While we all can acknowledge that Hagia Sophia is understood by some as a contested space on account of its symbolic prestige and extensive history, I see Hagia Sophia as a beacon of hope and a place of encounter for all people of good will rather than an object of conflict or conquest in a clash of civilizations. Hagia Sophia is not just a place of worship; it retains its inclusive character by promoting freedom of religion and belief for all.

We see this transformative splendor embedded in the multicolored marble, the soaring columns, and the rhythmic ascent of the semi-domes reaching their pinnacle in the magnificent dome suspended by light. It is on account of Hagia Sophia’s ethereal vastness, which leaves room for the penetration and transcendence of God’s light, that generations and nations have long valued Hagia Sophia as a site of revelation. Just as Christ’s “face shone like the sun, while His clothes became as white as the light” (Matt. 17:2) at the moment of Transfiguration – Μεταμόρφωσις – so too Hagia Sophia, through the light of God that floods the interior and unites the celestial dome to the earth, is a site that testifies to the reality of Christ’s words in the Gospel of Matthew, that “[...] with God all things are possible.” (Matt. 19:26)

It was nothing less than divine inspiration that guided Anthemios of Tralles and Isidoros of Miletos to design the Great Church of Christ under the patronage of Justinian the Great in the 6th century. It was nothing less than divine influence that moved the hands of the great mosaicists and iconographers of Constantinople to depict the Theotokos with all the angels and saints in the centuries after the great victory over iconoclasm. And it was nothing less than divine intervention that left the emissaries from the Kievan Rus awestruck at the magnificence of the structure, liturgy, and hymnography of Hagia Sophia, prompting the embrace of Orthodoxy by the entire people of Rus in the late 10th century.

Just as we honor the venerable history of the Great Church of Christ and the countless events that reaffirm the possibility of receiving the revelation of God’s Grace through this space, we now look to the present and understand why we are here this evening. Hagia Sophia is the beating heart of World Orthodoxy and a bridge that spans the abyss of division and separation. It is a testament to the Holy Wisdom and Love of God that calls us and guides us to compassion for one another and reconciliation with all people.

While we lament the reconversion of Hagia Sophia, we should never lose sight of the good work undertaken by people of good will throughout the world since last summer. Let us remember the innumerable statements produced and published by governments, organizations, and academic institutions around the world, affirming Hagia Sophia as a UNESCO World Heritage Site, a gift to humanity, and a place that yearns to remain a universal symbol of religious freedom, dialogue, and reconciliation. Let us also recall the inspirational Hagia Sophia Art Contest through which many of our young children throughout the Greek Orthodox Archdiocese of America spread awareness about the reconversion, sharing with us how they view their Hagia Sophia. Finally, let us recognize the immense outpouring of support from Christian churches and faith communities from around the world that – to quote from our joint statement with Cardinal Dolan – reminded us that we “[stand] together in faith and in solidarity with all people of good will and good faith, [as we declare] that Hagia Sophia [...] should remain what She is – a symbol of encounter, history, spiritual aspiration, and human achievement of the highest order, glorifying the One God Who has made us all to be sisters and brothers of one human family.”[1] 

By acknowledging the extraordinary work accomplished for the protection of the universal, spiritual, artistic, and cultural integrity of Hagia Sophia, we ourselves become witnesses to the transformative power of this sacred space, transforming us as we care for it. In this sense, Hagia Sophia remains untouched and unblemished in our hearts while we move forward with the work that her light radiates: namely, the protection of religious freedom, the collaboration of spiritual traditions, and the recognition of our common humanity.

Let us allow the light of God to shine in our own hearts and to transform us through His Holy Wisdom, Love, and Freedom. 

Thank you for your kind attention as well as for joining us with your presence and your prayer tonight.

 

[1] Archbishop Elpidophoros of America and Timothy Michael Cardinal Dolan, Archbishop of New York; “Common Statement on Hagia Sophia.”