Why the Pope should call for the return of the Hagia Sophia
by Bruce S. Thornton
Many in the West are congratulating Pope Benedict XVI’s recent trip to Turkey, where in the Blue Mosque he prayed facing Mecca and made other gestures meant to salve the wounds raised by his references to Islam’s history of violence. Personally, I found the whole scene a depressing exhibit of the West’s terminal failure of nerve, one particularly distressing given this Pope’s documented understanding that what we call the “war on terror” is in fact the latest episode in the centuries-long struggle with a militant Islam.
In the Pope’s visit and the media response to it, we once again witnessed the one-way street of “religious tolerance” and “respect.” In other words, the West is supposed to respect and tolerate Muslims and Islam, all the while that no such respect is afforded to Christians and Jews. The West is supposed to feel guilty and obsess over its putative crimes against Islam, all the while that the longer chronicle of Islamic assault against the West is forgotten. Hence the ridiculous ignorance of those who think the Crusades were “holy wars” akin to jihadic aggression. Somehow it’s forgotten that the Holy Land was Greco-Roman and Hebraic and Christian for centuries before the armies of Allah destroyed that cultural continuity and imposed a new culture and religion at the point of a sword.
This double standard was particularly obvious given the backdrop of the Pope’s visit –– the city of Istanbul. Once known as Constantinople, this was one of the great cities of Classical and Christian culture, home to one of Christendom’s most magnificent churches, Hagia Sophia, the church of the Holy Wisdom. On May 29, 1453, Constantinople ceased to exist, falling to the armies of the Sultan Mehmet II: “By noon,” John Julius Norwich writes, “the streets were running red with blood. Houses were ransacked, women and children raped or impaled, churches razed, icons wrenched from their golden frames, books ripped from their silver bindings. . . . In the church of St. Saviour in Chora the mosaics and frescoes were miraculously spared, but the Empire’s holiest icon, the Virgin Hodegetria, said to have been painted by St. Luke himself, was hacked into four pieces and destroyed. The most hideous scenes of all, however, were enacted in the church of the Holy Wisdom. Matins were already in progress when the berserk conquerors were heard approaching. Immediately the great bronze doors were closed; but the Turks soon smashed their way in. The poorer and more unattractive of the congregation were massacred on the spot; the remainder were lashed together and led off to the Turkish camps, for their captors to do with as they liked. As for the officiating priests, they continued with the Mass as long as they could before being killed at the high altar.”
Ancient history, you say, irrelevant to the present? But do not the Muslims repeatedly invoke the historical crimes of the West to justify terrorism? Are not the sins of colonialism and imperialism continually cited, even though France and England’s 150 years in the Middle East and North Africa are dwarfed by Islam’s several centuries in Spain and the Balkans and the cradle of the West, Greece? Is there some statute of limitations on conquest and the transfer of territory that attends it, so that the conquests of Islam are legitimized by time, while those of the West can never be?
Why do we accept this double standard? Why are the continuing persecution of Christians today, despicable anti-Semitic slanders, and the desecration of temples and churches in Muslim lands shrugged away in the West, while trivial cartoons and mere statements of historical fact are met with hysteria, violence, and threats? Why are churches disappearing throughout the lands of Christianity’s birth and growth, while huge mosques are going up in London and Milan? Why are Christians and Jews forbidden entry into Saudi Arabia, while Muslims in Europe demand special privileges and recognition of their faith?
Nowhere is this insane, groveling capitulation of the West more obvious than in its treatment of Israel. By all rights, when Israel recaptured Jerusalem from Jordan –– in a defensive war Israel did not want, a war Israel literally begged Jordan to stay out of –– Israel could have razed the Aqsa mosque and rebuilt the temple on the site it had stood on for centuries before Islam even existed. Instead, the Temple Mount is still controlled by Muslims, who are free to worship in the mosque all the while they allow the children of Allah to throw stones on the Jews who come to worship at the few scraps of the temple wall, all that is left to them of their holiest site. Meanwhile the countries of the West decry the “illegal occupation” of Jerusalem and Judea and Galilee, refuse to put their embassies in the capital of Israel, and continually demand more and more concessions to a people who have made it clear that their conquest of Jerusalem is legitimate, that Israelis, not they, are the interloper in the Jews’ historical homeland, and that violence against innocents is justified to undo a history deemed to violate Allah’s will.
When will we learn that this forbearance is not a testimony to our strength but rather a sign of our cultural sickness? Would that the Pope had stood in Hagia Sophia and asked the Turks to restore this Christian monument to the Orthodox Church, as a sign that Turkey is sincere about entering the modern world and accepting its canons of reciprocal tolerance, not to mention showing the sort of regret for its ancestors’ crimes that the West is continually dunned to show. What do you think the reaction would have been? How many Christians would have died in the ensuing riots by the adherents of the “religion of peace”? And how many Western commentators would have scourged the Pope for his blinkered intolerance and insensitivity?
No, the enemy knows that what we pretend to be “tolerance” and “respect” are merely the camouflage of spiritual exhaustion and fear. We have fewer and fewer men like those who created the West in the teeth of Islamic aggression, men like the Byzantine Greek Lucas Notaras. After the sack of Constantinople, the Sultan demanded Notaras’s beautiful 14-year-old son for the royal harem: “When Notaras still defied the Sultan,” Steven Runciman writes, “orders were given for him and the two boys [his son and son-in-law] to be decapitated on the spot. Notaras merely asked that they should be slain before him, lest the sight of his death should make them waver. When they had both perished, he bared his neck to the executioner.” As Nestor says in the Iliad, “Men like those I have not seen again, nor ever will.”
©2006 Bruce Thornton