At the announcement of the transformation of Istanbul’s Hagia Sophia into a mosque, decided by President Recep Tayyip Erdogan on July 10, 2020, Russia initially reacted by defending its ally. This decision was considered by Moscow as an internal Turkish matter. The Russian reaction, however, admitted that the site was of international importance.
Later, Russia made an unexpected proposal. In fact, the construction of a replica of the basilica is planned in the western province of Hama, Syria. It is funded by private Syrian and Russian funds. However, it would be smaller than the original basilica.
Lebanese media, Al Modon, announced that preparatory work could begin as early as August. The initiator of the project is the Syrian Nabeul Al-Abdullah, militia leader in favor of the Bashar al-Assad regime. He has obtained the agreement of the Orthodox bishop of Hama.
The proposal was submitted to the Duma, the Russian parliament, which agreed to support the project. One of its representatives, Vitaly Milonov, told RIA Novosti that he “considers Syria a suitable place to build a copy of Hagia Sophia.” This support was confirmed by the visit of a Russian military delegation to the Syrian town of Al-Suqaylabiyah, which is envisaged as the site of construction of the replica.
The decision has several objectives. First, the support of Bashar al-Assad, whose openness Russia emphasizes: “Syria, unlike Turkey, is a country that clearly shows the possibility of peaceful and positive interfaith dialogue. President Bashar al-Assad would never transfer a cathedral from one denomination to another,” Vitaly Milonov said.
It is a way for President Vladimir Putin to strengthen his influence in Syria. Also, for him, it is a discreet way to condemn Erdogan’s gesture and to strengthen his popularity, because the emotions of the hierarchy and the Orthodox faithful have been strong in Russia. Putin is thus posing as a defender of the Orthodox and Christians on the international scene.