The Vicar Apostolic of Anatolia has recalled that most Turks want Istanbul’s Hagia Sophia to be a mosque, and as such the decision to reconvert the monument was “not the whim of the president”.
– “70% of the population approves” of the mosque reconversion
“About 70% of the Turkish population, according to the latest polls, has approved this decision of President Erdogan” to open Hagia Sophia again for Muslim prayers, Bishop Paolo Bizzeti reminded news agency SIR in comments published July 13.
The head of the Roman Catholic Church in Turkey said that that majority support for the reconversion was “a fact that must be taken into account” in Christian reactions to the move.
Bizzeti also trusted Erdogan’s assurances in a speech broadcast July 10 soon after Turkey’s highest administrative court, the Council of State, overturned the secular museum status Hagia Sophia has enjoyed since 1935 “that the place will be open to all and the entrance fee will no longer be paid”.
The prelate observed, however, that “it remains to be seen how [Hagia Sophia] will be set up” when Muslim prayers resume July 24, according to Erdogan’s plans, “and whether there will be a space in front of the mosaics of the ancient Byzantine cathedral”.
Bizzeti was referring to the artwork of angels, saints, crosses, the Virgin and Child and Christ, Mary and John the Baptist that adorn the space and in some cases date back to the building’s completion in the sixth century.
Since the vicar apostolic made his remarks, the Turkish Religious Affairs Directorate, or Diyanet, has confirmed that while “not an obstacle to the validity of the prayers”, the Christian icons in Hagia Sophia “should be curtained and shaded through appropriate means during prayer times”.
– Could something good come out of the reconversion? The legal recognition of the Catholic Church?
While Bizzeti was being sanguine in his remarks on the fate of Hagia Sophia, he also admitted felt the “shared pain” of Pope Francis and other Christian leaders such as Ecumenical Patriarch Bartholomew who in these days “have expressed themselves clearly” in their opposition to the museum’s becoming a mosque.
Nonetheless, the Roman Catholic leader in Turkey expressed a hope that some good for Christians could still come out of the mosque reconversion.
In his speech Friday to mark the decree formalising the change of status of Hagia Sophia President Erdogan made multiple references to the importance of faith and prayer, Bizzeti recalled, adding that those references “give me hope that the possibility of praying will be granted to Christian refugees, and also that chapels will be allowed to open in Turkish territory”.
“As the man of faith and religion that he is, the president could grant this possibility to Christians who do not live in Istanbul where instead there are many churches”, Bizzeti explained.
“In other places there is not even a small chapel to gather and pray in”, the prelate lamented, adding that “if prayer and faith are important, then let this opportunity be given to [the refugees] who, at first, were thought to be in transit when they have been in Turkey for years”.
“We have problems opening new buildings”, Bizzeti deplored, explaining that many of the restrictions the Churches in Turkey endure are due to the 1923 Treaty of Lausanne that recognised the Republic of Turkey as the successor state to the Ottoman Empire but which, according to the vicar apostolic, “strongly penalise some Christian communities”.
Bizzeti affirmed that the Catholic Church would seek a revision of the Treaty, and though he said he thought Turkey would be “open” to such a revision, he added that it also depended on other Western powers who signed the accord to revise and modify its content.
The prelate insisted that “it is essential… to allow people of every faith and religion to express themselves”. but beyond that human right, he added that “at stake as well is the legal recognition of the Catholic Church”.
That recognition, now, may ironically be easier to obtain after the Hagia Sophia mosque conversion, now that President Erdogan has turned the page on the era of “extreme secularism” inaugurated by Turkish founding father Mustafa Kemal Atatürk in which “there was less room for religious minorities”, in Bizzeti’s words.