EU Bishops of COMECE label Hagia Sophia mosque decision 'a blow to interreligious dialogue'

EU Bishops of COMECE label Hagia Sophia mosque decision “a blow to interreligious dialogue”

COMECE, the Commission of the Bishops’ Conferences of the European Union, has labelled Turkey’s decision to reconvert the Istanbul monument of Hagia Sophia into a mosque “a blow to interreligious dialogue”, as CEC, the Conference of European Churches, has warned the move could “potentially create fertile ground for religious hatred and subsequent violence”.

Full text of the COMECE press release

(Source: COMECE)

“Converting Hagia Sophia into a mosque distances Turkey from Europe and it is a blow to the Orthodox Church and to interreligious dialogue”, stated Fr. Manuel Barrios Prieto, General Secretary of COMECE, on Friday 10 July 2020 commenting the decision of Turkey’s highest administrative court, the Council of State, to allow the change in status of World Heritage Monument Hagia Sophia from a museum to a Muslim temple.

Emphasising the strong symbolic, historical and universal value of Hagia Sophia, Josep Borrell, EU External Action High Representative, stated that President Recep Tayyip Erdogan’s decision to place the monument under the management of the Religious Affairs Presidency, “is regrettable”, and invited the country – a founding member of the Alliance of Civilisations – “to promote inter-religious and inter-cultural dialogue and to foster of tolerance and co-existence”.

In a letter to Turkey’s President, also the World Council of Churches, which counts 350 churches as members, has called Ankara to reverse his decision. And Pope Francis on Sunday said: “I think of Hagia Sophia and I am very saddened”.

The General Secretary of COMECE, Fr. Manuel Barrios Prieto, stated that the decision “is a blow to interreligious dialogue”, a field where, according to a 2019 European Commission report, Turkey has “a serious problem”, in particular in relation to hate speech and threats directed against national, ethnic and religions minorities.

The EU Commission report states that hate speech and anti-Semitic rhetoric in the media and by public officials continues and that, despite “discussions between the Government and representatives of minorities have continued, attacks or acts of vandalism on minority worship places continued and need to be investigated”.

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The document also highlights that “full respect for and protection of language, religion, culture and fundamental rights in accordance with European standards have yet to be fully achieved”.

This includes also the issue of property rights of non-Muslim minorities and “the need for a revision of legislation covering all issues regarding property rights is pending”.

“As the Venice Commission underlined in 2010 – reads the report – Turkey should continue the reform process and introduce legislation which makes it possible for all non-Muslim religious communities as such to acquire legal personality”.

In the context of the recent decision on the status of the 1,500-year-old Byzantine building, the issue of legal personality was denounced also by the Turkish Bishops’ Conference, which, in a statement sent to the Catholic News Service, stated that “although we would wish Hagia Sophia to retain its character as a museum, we are a church deprived of juridical status, so we cannot give any advice on this country’s internal questions”.

The UNESCO-listed Hagia Sophia was completed in 537AD by the Byzantine emperor Justinian, and for centuries served as one of the world’s most important centres of Christianity. The cathedral was converted into an imperial mosque about 550 years ago after the Ottoman conquest of Constantinople, and in 1934 became a museum on the orders of Mustafa Kemal Atatürk, the founder of the Turkish Republic.

Full text of the CEC press release

(Source: CEC)

The Conference of European Churches (CEC) has witnessed the recent decision of Hagia Sophia’s conversion into a mosque with deep regret.

The regional ecumenical organisation, representing 114 Member Churches across Europe, many of them Orthodox churches, raised its concern last week with the European Institutions and UNESCO, following a hearing by the Turkish Council of State.

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Hagia Sophia is a UNESCO world heritage site in Istanbul and a museum since 1934. In Friday’s decision, the Turkish government annulled its museum status. Built 1500 years ago as an Orthodox Christian cathedral, Hagia Sophia was converted into a mosque after the Ottoman conquest in 1453 and later turned into a museum by Mustafa Kemal Ataturk.

CEC’s letter to European Commission and UNESCO

In a letter to Josep Borrell Fontelles, High Representative of the European Commission, CEC expressed deep concern over the outcome of the decision on the status of Hagia Sophia.

“The procedure, motivated by a petition delivered to the Turkish Court with the official support of the Turkish president’s office, opens the way for the conversion of Hagia Sophia into a mosque, questioning the validity of the presidential decree from 1934. CEC would like to underline that such an action would potentially create fertile ground for religious hatred and subsequent violence”, stated the letter.

A CEC letter to Audrey Azoulay, Director-General of UNESCO and Mechtild Rössler, Director of World Heritage Centre of UNESCO, says, “We urge UNESCO to undertake concrete action vis-a-vis the Turkish government in order to prevent the change of status of the existing world heritage site Hagia Sophia”.

“We consider it inappropriate and harmful”

CEC President Rev. Christian Krieger said, “We see such development with regret, as it could potentially invoke grounds for religious intolerance and violence. We have previously raised concerns with UNESCO and the European Institutions to seek diplomatic influence preventing such an action”.

CEC Vice-President Metropolitan Cleopas of Sweden and All Scandinavia, said, “In its status as a museum, Hagia Sophia brings together people and cultures from all over the world.

“A change in this status undoubtedly diminishes this remarkable structure’s legacy as a universally accessible bridge uniting East and West, symbolising the peaceful coexistence, mutual understanding, and solidarity between diverse peoples.

“We echo the words of His All-Holiness Ecumenical Patriarch Bartholomew that ‘we consider it inappropriate and harmful, in the 21st century, for Hagia Sophia, which is dedicated to God’s Holy Wisdom and enables the faithful of both religions to meet and marvel at its grandeur, to become the cause of confrontations and conflicts’”, added Metropolitan Cleopas.

“In the spirit of Hagia Sophia’s name, which literally translates to Holy Wisdom, we pray that wisdom and reason will ultimately prevail and Hagia Sophia will continue to operate under its status as a museum”.

CEC General Secretary Dr Jørgen Skov Sørensen, said, “Following recent developments, I am reminded of St Paul’s words in his letter to the Corinthians, ‘If one member suffers, all suffer together with it; if one member is honoured, all rejoice together with it’ (1 Corinthians. 12:26)”.

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“This decision impacts churches that are directly affected. However, all CEC Member Churches are disturbed by what we witness in Istanbul these days”, he added.

Novena’s full coverage of the Hagia Sophia mosque controversy:

Analysis: Could the US and Western Europe use the Hagia Sophia reconversion to create a new front against Turkey?

Turkish president says Hagia Sophia mosque reconversion “fulfills will of 83 million citizens”, corrects museum “mistake”

Vatican advisor denies “Islamic aggression” behind Hagia Sophia mosque decision: “Istanbul is not Mecca”

12/7: Angelus: Pope breaks silence on Hagia Sophia, says “very saddened” by reconversion to mosque

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Cameron Doody

Director and editor at Novena
PhD in ancient Jewish/Christian history and philosophy. Lecturer in ethics at Loyola University Maryland, Alcalá de Henares (Spain) campus. Religion journalist with 4 years experience.