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

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.â? The U.S. Commission for International Religious Freedom considers the move "provocative.â? 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.â? 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.â?  In its annual report on religious freedom, the Commission urged the U.S. Government to "fully engageâ? 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. RCA CTV FA -PR Up: YJA