It is one of the most visited tourist sites in Istanbul, the Sultan Ahmed Mosque, commonly referred to as The Blue Mosque. Of course it was a must-see when I visited Istanbul a year ago.
I have visited dozens, maybe hundreds of churches in my travels over the years but I have been in very few mosques. That would be primarily because the Muslim population hasn’t been too large in areas I have visited, and mosques aren’t the tourist attractions churches are. The Blue Mosque is different. I always thought its’ name came from the colour of the building, so I was a bit confused when I first saw it because it isn’t blue. Turns out the blue is the interior, which is very beautiful.
What impressed me the most about my visit however was not the architecture or the beauty of the structure. I was most taken with the understanding of the unique opportunity that a tourist site has to impact those who come through its doors. The Blue Mosque is a working mosque; tourists are not welcome during the daily prayer times. The rest of the day visitors are encouraged and people throng to the site. As I moved through the mosque taking pictures (no flash photography allowed) I could see and hear an imam preaching, in English, about why someone should become a Muslim. That message definitely wasn’t intended for the Turks who are born into the faith. There was also a room set aside, with multilingual staff, where seekers could come to learn more. Someone in authority has realized the opportunity to preach the message of Islam to those visiting, people who might not pay attention to it in other settings.
I thought about sticking my head in the room, about engaging in dialogue and debate, but decided that time constraints made that a poor choice. I think the sermon I heard would have had a certain appeal to those who don’t know much about Islam or Christianity. I remember a few points where my thought was “that isn’t true” but a year later I can’t remember what they were. Maybe I should have found the time for debate.
It seems to me that the churches we visited in Europe this past summer are missing an opportunity. I am not criticizing their approach (okay, I am really), but they were much more low-key in presenting the Truth of Christianity. There was (usually) a brochure explaining the faith, but not much more than that. Certainly no-one was preaching a message to those wandering through. And some churches, with heavy financial needs to maintain their historic buildings, have to charge admission. The Blue Mosque was free, though donations are gladly accepted.
Opportunities lost I guess, or perhaps a misunderstanding of the primary mission of the church. If the idea is to go into the world and make disciples of all nations, and people from those nations are coming to you, then why aren’t you acting on it?
Now maybe I am misjudging the churches – but I was in a dozen churches as a tourist this summer. Not once did someone offer to present Christianity to me. Maybe the assumption is that the Truth is self-evident, but I’m not sure society would see it that way anymore. The church in Western Europe seems in many ways to have lost its relevance, and maybe that is because it has lost its sense of mission. That wasn’t the case at the Blue Mosque.