Dr. Robert P. George, chairman of the U.S. Commission on International Religious Freedom.(USCIRF)
(CNSNews.com) -- The United States Commission on International Religious Freedom (USCIRF) has condemned a bill recently introduced in the Turkish parliament that would “change the status of Hagia Sophia from a museum, which it has been since 1935, to a mosque,” commission chairman Robert George told CNSNews.com.
“USCIRF urges the U.S. government to engage the Turkish government fully and continually on religious freedom matters,” Dr. George said, adding that the commission would like to see Turkey “move in a positive direction in improving religious freedom.”
In a May 21st statement, the Commission said that changing the Hagia Sophia back into a mosque “could deepen the wedge between the government and its delicate relations with its Christian minority," calling the attempt "divisive and provocative."
“Whether driven by political considerations tied to Turkey’s forthcoming elections, or for any other reason, opening Hagia Sophia as a mosque would clearly be a divisive and provocative move. It would send the message that the current government sees the sensitivities of Turkey’s religious minority communities, particularly its ancient Christian community, as being of little or no consequence,” the statement noted.
The 1,477-year-old Hagia Sophia, which is located in Istanbul, has had a turbulent history. The historic building, which was originally constructed under Emperor Justinian, was completed by 537 A.D. and is an iconic example of Byzantine architecture.
It served alternately as a Roman Catholic cathedral and an Eastern Orthodox church until 1453, when the Ottoman Turks captured Constantinople and converted the church into a mosque. The structure remained a mosque until 1935, when it became a museum during the presidency of Mustafa Ataturk.
Noting that The Hagia Sophia (Greek for “Holy Wisdom’”) is a powerful symbol, both historically and spiritually, for millions of people worldwide, the commission urged the Turkish government to continue to maintain it as a museum.
Interior of the Hagia Sophia, which is currently a museum in Istanbul, Turkey. (Murad Sezer/AP Photo)
“Given Hagia Sophia’s longstanding connection to Christians and Muslims alike, as well as the rich spiritual meaning it embodies and the powerful emotions it evokes for members of both faiths globally, we believe the pending bill forces Turkey and its people into a zero-sum situation that unnecessarily favors one community over the other,” the USCIRF statement said.
Ecumenical Patriarch Bartholomew, spiritual leader of the Greek Orthodox Church, has also rejected the proposition of turning the structure back into a mosque.
“If Hagia Sophia is about to become a place of worship once again, it should operate as a church,” he said. “After all, this is why it was built.”
The desire in Turkey to convert the Hagia Sophia back into a mosque has become stronger in recent years, especially since other churches with the same name that were also converted into museums have since become mosques.
“We currently stand next to the Hagia Sophia mosque . . . we are looking at a sad Hagia Sophia, but hopefully we will see it smiling again soon,” Deputy Prime Minister Bulent Arinc said in a November 2013 speech outside the museum.
Though officially secular, Turkey is 99.8% Muslim. Christians are free to hold to their own belief system, but in practice they are often faced with governmental discrimination.