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Non-partisan group lobbies U.S. government to press Turkey for greater religious freedom

2014-06-22

The Hagia Sophia stands as one of the most imposing monuments to history and religion worldwide. As a museum, it guards its storied past. But all that could change if the Turkish government gives in to internal pressure to change it back into a mosque.

DR. ROBERT GEORGE
Chair, U.S. Commission for International Religious Freedom
"It would send a message that the current government views the sensitivities of Turkey's religious minorities, and in particular its ancient Christian community, as being of no real consequence.”

The U.S. Commission for International Religious Freedom considers the move "provocative.” Already, Turkey's prime minister and his ruling party face growing criticism, describing him as an authoritarian who wants to get rid of the country's strictly-enforced secular status. Recent moves, for example restricting sites like YouTube and Twitter, don't help his reputation.

DR. ROBERT GEORGE
Chair, U.S. Commission for International Religious Freedom
"There's been a downward turn in the last year for a number of human rights in Turkey, including the right to internet usage, the right to privacy, and the right to freedom of assembly. And this has had a negative effect on all Turkish citizens, including certainly, the smallest communities.”

The status of the Hagia Sophia mirrors the plight of the country's Christians. For 900 years, the basilica-turned-mosque-turned Museum served as the spiritual center of the Eastern Orthodox Church. 

Today, the presence of Christianity is threatened. Unless the government reopens the Greek-Orthodox seminary, Bartholomew could be its last Ecumenical Patriarch.

DR. ROBERT GEORGE
Chair, U.S. Commission for International Religious Freedom
"We hope that Turkey will move in a positive direction and improve religious freedom, including reopening the Halki Seminary after years of promises that they would do that.” 

In its annual report on religious freedom, the Commission urged the U.S. Government to "fully engage” Turkey, to protect the rights of religious minorities and to grant them full autonomy. 

The Turkish prime minister's response to change the Hagia Sophia into a mosque has been lukewarm. He has said that nearby mosques are often empty and should be filled before considering any changes. The U.S. Commission and critics said such a move would detracts from the country's rich history and its tradition as a religiously plural democracy.


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