In the year 360 AD one of the largest churches in the world was built and dedicated to Jesus Christ on Christmas Day. It was called “Hagia Sophia” which means “Holy Wisdom”. From 360 AD until 1453 AD this church remained one of the most significant churches in the world and even more prominent than any church in Rome. Christianity was centered here for more than a thousand years sitting on a small peninsula on the Bosporus strait which separates Asia from Europe. It is in modern day Istanbul, Turkey.
The size of this church was the largest dome and largest indoor structure in the world for nearly a thousand years. Even today, there are only a handful of buildings which are larger in size. The irony of this structure is that it was dedicated to Jesus Christ and given the name, “The Holy Wisdom of God”. Yet this building symbolizes man’s wisdom and ingenuity. Constantine is the Roman Emperor who expanded the Christian influence globally. According to history, he saw a burning cross in the sky and heard the words “In Hoc Signo Vinces” which means, “In this sign conquer!” The letters “IHS” and the “cross” are symbols of the Catholic Church to this day. They are symbols of conquest.
The history of Constantinople or Istanbul as it is known today is full of conquest. Hundreds of thousands, if not millions of people’s lives have been sacrificed to conquer this city with its great church “Holy Wisdom of God”. In some battles up to 80,000 people died. Wars continued for over a thousand years for this land. Currently it is occupied by the Turks, who apparently originally came from Central Asia. Hagia Sophia was converted into a mosque and used for Muslim worship for more than 500 years. Why so many wars in this land where East meets West? Conquest.
The Christians wanted to expand their empire and did so by conquest. When Islam was formed, they grew by conquest and quickly saw their expansion dependent on conquering Christians. Millions have died in the name of “Conquest”. Yet, they used Jesus and Mohammed as their excuses. Today there are still more than 2 billion Christians in the world and nearly as many Muslims. Turkey is one of the most solidly Islamic countries in the entire Islamic world. Of more than 50 million Turks, only around 2,000 are Christians, yet they have considerable freedom of religion for an Islamic country (though officially it is a secular state, not Islamic state).
Yesterday we met some Christians who are Turks. This is a nation which was born out of conquest. It is a nation which has revenge as its heart. There have been so many wars and so many hundreds of thousands have shed their blood on this land it is hard to comprehend its tragic history. The center of this land is still the Hagia Sophia Cathedral, “the Holy Wisdom of God”. Jesus came to bring love and peace; never conquest. It was a blessing to see young Turkish believers discover the true Jesus. Not one of conquest. Not one of giant buildings glorifying man’s ingenuity. Not a religion of conquest.
As we listened to the testimonies of how these believers came to Christ our hearts were blessed, it was all through relationships and love. The choice for them was difficult because they have been raised to view “others” as the “enemy”, yet they have learned to love; to receive and to give love. No one ever fought a war over love. I have great hope for these followers of the true Jesus in Turkey. I have great hope that the new church which grows in Turkey does not represent the ancient buildings of past, but one which is symbolized by love.