By / Aug 24

President Recep Tayyip Erdogan of Turkey announced that he will convert the longstanding landmark in Istanbul, the Hagia Sophia, back to a mosque after being a museum for over 80 years. This announcement follows Turkey’s Council of State’s decision to annul the 1934 presidential decree that originally designated the structure as a museum and a new presidential decree that transferred authority of the Hagia Sophia to Turkey’s Religious Affairs Directorate. 

What is the Hagia Sophia?

The Hagia Sophia is the enduring architectural marvel that has stood as a significant landmark in Constantinople, or present day Istanbul, Turkey, for almost 1,500 years. It was originally constructed under the authority of Byzantine Emperor Constantius in 360 A.D. to be a basilica. The first construction of the Hagia Sophia was covered by a wooden roof and burned to the ground in 404 A.D. by political rioters. It was rebuilt in 415 A.D., but the second construction also burned down during the Nika revolts. In 537 A.D., the third and final Hagia Sophia was constructed, and it remains to this day.

For the Orthodox Church, the Hagia Sophia became the center of church life, faith, and ceremonies celebrating the new emperors. It was a pivotal part of Byzantine culture and politics for almost 900 years. During the Crusades, Constantinople was under Roman control for a short time, but the Byzantines reclaimed the city and repaired the damage done to the Hagia Sophia.

In 1453 A.D., the Ottomans conquered the city of Constantinople and renovated the Hagia Sophia into a mosque. Much of the original Orthodox mosaics and art found in the Hagia Sophia were covered by Islamic calligraphy and other art. The Hagia Sophia remained a mosque until 1935, when it was formally converted into a museum, operated by the government, that displays artifacts and art from every period of the church’s history.

Why is this controversial?

Given the Hagia Sophia’s history under different religions and rulers, there are multiple groups today that consider the landmark an important part of their history. Turning the Hagia Sophia into a museum honored all of the religious ties to the church and symbolized civil engagement between Christianity and Islam. It was even designated as a World Heritage Site in 1985 by UNESCO. The conversion from museum to mosque is a disruption of the peaceful status quo of the Hagia Sophia’s diverse history that has stood for nearly a century. 

Religious and political leaders that value the Hagia Sophia as a cultural site have stated that it is best left as a museum due to the highly contested nature of the building. For many years it has been a symbol of pluralism and served as an inspiration of awe for all who have seen the magnificence of the Hagia Sophia. 

Surrounding President Erdogan’s announcement, the ecumenical patriarch of Istanbul, U.S. Secretary of State Mike Pompeo, the Russian Orthodox Church, and the foreign minister of Cyprus have spoken out against the decision to convert the Hagia Sophia back into a mosque because of the division and discord it will bring in the Republic of Turkey. Secretary Pompeo argues that Turkey should continue to represent its diverse history through the Hagia Sophia and that it should remain accessible for all people to enjoy and engage. 

Why is this important?

Deciding to remove Christian Orthodox heritage and history from the Hagia Sophia is damaging to the relationship between Christians and Muslims in Turkey, and it will be devastating for Christians who still consider the Hagia Sophia as a sacred space for worship. This landmark of peace and inspiration for many religions is now being used for one religion alone to the exclusion of the rest. This change disrespects the Orthodox Church and the faithful who visited the Hagia Sophia to worship.

What happens now?

On Friday, July 24, thousands of people gathered at the Hagia Sophia to participate in prayers at the historic Muslim house of worship for the first time in 86 years. Erdogan promised that the Hagia Sophia Grand Mosque is a place that “people of all religions can visit” and that it will still be a place that serves all believers. The artifacts previously displayed in the Hagia Sophia will be moved to another building in a separate museum. Going forward, the Orthodox Church will have to grapple with its history being removed from the Hagia Sophia and being further marginalized in the Republic of Turkey.

ERLC Intern Mary Beth Teague contributed to this article.

By / Aug 17

This Saturday marks the quincentennial of King Charles V of Spain authorizing the slave trade from Africa to the New World. Here are five facts you should know about the transatlantic slave trade and its abolition.

1. The Spanish merchant Juan de Córdoba is believed to have first transported captured Africans to the Americas in 1502. The first slave voyage direct from Africa to the Americas is believed to have sailed in 1526. But even before then, Africans were brought over as slaves directly from Europe, and native inhabitants of America were enslaved by European explorers. On his first day in the New World, Christopher Columbus wrote in his journal that he had ordered six of the people of the West Indies to be seized because he believed they would make good servants.

2. Prior to 1518, the Spanish monarchy refused to allow slaves to be transported directly from the continent of Africa because of a fear they would introduce non-Christian religious practices to native populations in America. That changed on on August 18, 1518, when King Charles V granted a charter to Lorenzo de Gorrevod to transport 4,000 slaves directly from Africa to the Spanish American colonies. The Spanish king circumvented the law established by his grandparents by allowing slaves to be “converted” to Christianity during the voyage across the Atlantic Ocean. This action led to a broad expansion of the slave trade in the Western hemisphere.

3. A triangular trade route across the Atlantic took goods from Europe to Africa, African slaves to the Americas and West Indies, and mostly raw materials produced on the plantations back to Europe. The leg of the trade route that transported slaves is known as the “Middle Passage.” Depending on the weather, this voyage could take between three to six months (by the end of the slave trade era it took six weeks or less). The passage was so brutal that the ships lost both the persons transported as slaves as well as a significant portion of the crew (the mortality rate for sailors on slave ships was approximately 20 percent). Slave ships varied in size and passenger capacity, but they all shared the common trait of being inhumanly brutal. African slaves spent most of their day below deck in cramped quarters and were brought on deck only for short periods of forced exercise. Research published in 1794 calculated that a man was given a space of 6 feet by 1 foot, 4 inches; a woman 5 feet by 1 foot, 4 inches; and girls 4 feet, 6 inches by 1 foot. The air below deck was hot, stale, and filled with the incessant smell of vomit, sweat, sickness, and death. Water was restricted to 24 ounces a day—the equivalent of two 12-ounce soda cans of fluid per day—and the diet consisted mainly of rice and fava beans.

4. Because of inadequate records, the number of people taken from Africa through enslavement remains unknown. Based on shipping records, historians estimate that between 9 million and 11 million people were taken out of Africa by European slave traders and delivered alive on the other side of the Atlantic. An untold number, however, died resisting capture in the “slave raids,” during the forced march to the coastal regions, in slave forts while awaiting transport, and as they travelled across the ocean. The lowest number for the total loss of life is estimated to be around 20 million people—a total that is more than all of the people currently living in New York state.

5. In the late 1700s Christians began mobilizing in North America and Western Europe to end the transatlantic slave trade. “The main thrust of Christian abolitionism emerged from the evangelical revival of the 18th century,” notes the BBC, “which spawned dynamic Christians with clear-cut beliefs on morality and sin and approached the issue of slavery from this standpoint.” The Quakers were the first religious group to officially form an abolition movement in the U.S. and U.K., though they were quickly joined by Baptists, Congregationalists, Methodists, and Presbyterians. In 1789 the evangelical convert and British politician William Wilberforce began introducing bills that would abolish the trade. He would reintroduce such legislation every year until 1807, when the Abolition of the Slave Trade Act finally abolished the transatlantic slave trade throughout the British Empire. The king of Denmark, Christian VII, also signed a decree in 1792 banning Danish participation in the trade, though it did not take effect until 1803. Due to the influence of the British the Vienna Declaration—credited with having introduced abolition of the slave trade as a principle in general international law—was signed by Austria, Britain, France, Portugal, Prussia, Russia, Spain, and Sweden in 1815. In 1926, the Convention to Suppress the Slave Trade and Slavery was adopted as an international treaty. To date, 99 nations have signed the treaty, with the most recent signatory, Zambia, added in 1973.

By / Nov 17

One week after graduating from high school, my family went on one of the most miserable vacations I can remember. It wasn’t unbearable because of travel difficulties or because of a family tragedy or sickness. Instead, it was miserable because we went to the most boring place I could imagine: Washington, D.C. There were no beaches or roller coasters. There was only Mount Vernon and a “mall” with no movie theatre.

Most of you are probably gasping for breath as you read about my lack of excitement for the political and historical center of America. Rest assured, I have seen the light! And that’s why I’m even more excited about a new addition to the D.C. attractions.

The Museum of the Bible opens today. For the first time ever, the Bible will have a world-class museum effort to honor the best-selling book of all time. Isn’t it odd to think that we have premiere museums dedicated to all styles of art, key periods of history, many ethnic groups, and all major sports, but until now, there wasn’t a museum dedicated to the Bible?

The Bible has had an unparalleled effect on our society, even beyond the church. We have many of the institutions and freedoms we enjoy today because people were inspired and directed by the Bible. The MOTB exists to put a spotlight on all the positive ways the Bible has shaped our world in the past and continues to influence our everyday life.

This museum is one of the tallest buildings in all of Washington—at 150 feet tall (including the best view in Washington)—and one of the largest museums—at 430,000 total square feet. There are massive floors filled with interactive exhibits for all ages. It’s probably unlike any museum you have experienced. In January, CNN named Museum of the Bible as the most anticipated museum opening in America.

What would happen in our churches and our cities if people came to their own conclusions about the Bible’s message?

The objective of the museum is simple: encourage all people to engage with the Bible for themselves. We live in a time where individual Bible engagement is at an all-time low in our nation’s history, while skepticism of the Bible’s reliability and moral teachings is at an all-time high. But what would happen if we began to see the tide turn and people began to read the Bible? What would happen in our churches and our cities if people came to their own conclusions about the Bible’s message?

The MOTB has received a mix of positive and negative reviews from Christians and skeptics alike. It’s been criticized for not talking about Jesus enough. Yet at the same time, many skeptics are speaking out against the MOTB as being too evangelistic. Steven Friesen speculates, “My guess is that they’ve worked very hard at covering what they would like to do, trying to hide the agenda that is behind the museum.” Friesen admits later he has not seen MOTB for himself. However, we are thrilled to see there are some who do not self-identify as Christians that are responding to a historic approach to the Book of books. Rob Brunner from the Washingtonian admits, “Even as a non-believer, I was intrigued.”

The opening of the MOTB is only the beginning. Not only will you be able to come to D.C. for an amazing experience, but MOTB has plans to touch communities around the world. Today, we have a curriculum for private and home schools that teaches the history, narrative, and influence of the Bible. And the thing I am most excited about is our church engagement initiative where we take a sample of artifacts to churches and teach on the Bible’s history and impact.

If you’d like to support or stay up-to-date with the MOTB, here are a few things you can do:

  • Pray for the MOTB to faithfully share the message of the Bible.
  • Pray against the attacks from those that hate the Bible and those that love the Bible but do not understand our mission.
  • Request the MOTB to bring a sample of the museum to your church for free! E-mail [email protected]
  • Plan to bring your family and your church to MOTB when you come to D.C. for Evangelicals for Life in January, 2018.
  • Book your tickets now.
  • Share MOTB on Facebook and Instagram, especially our new video highlighting the Bible as the common thread throughout history.
  • Read along with one of our YouVersion reading plans.

We’re excited to see how God will use this museum to uphold the power and wonder of his living Word.