21 July 2020, The Tablet

Turkish Bishop deplores western inaction over Hagia Sophia

The Bishop told Italy's Il Tempo weekly other churches had been turned into mosques in Istanbul and Trabzon.

Turkish Bishop deplores western inaction over Hagia Sophia

A picture of the outside of the Hagia Sophia in Istanbul, Turkey, July 17, 2020
Onur Dogman/NurPhoto/PA Images

A Catholic bishop in Turkey has accused European governments of abandoning Christians and facilitating the conversion of Istanbul's historic Hagia Sophia basilica into a Muslim mosque, as another senior church representative also criticised the European Union's response to the Turkish government's controversial move.

"The West makes big statements, but doesn't ensure mutual rights - I fear it will also quickly forget about Hagia Sophia", said Bishop Paolo Bizetti, Italian apostolic vicar of Anatolia. "For Christians in Turkey, this development came as no surprise, since it was consistent with a long-declared political and religious vision. Most Westerners seem completely unaware of realities here".

The Florence-born Jesuit spoke amid continuing condemnations of the sixth-century landmark's reopening to Muslims, confirmed in a 10 July decree by President Tayyip Recep Erdogan. 

He told Italy's Il Tempo weekly other churches had been turned into mosques in Istanbul and Trabzon, adding that no "legitimate reciprocity" had been demanded for Muslim freedom of worship in the European Union, which might ensure "legal recognition and equal opportunities" for Christians in Turkey.  

"We enjoy greater recognition today than in the past, and there are fewer difficulties in obtaining residence permits for priests", Bishop Bizetti said. "But the situation is extremely difficult now for thousands of Christian refugees. They cannot participate in religious meetings because the police refuse them permission to leave the cities, and they lack even chapels or rooms to pray in. Western Christians should be looking after these people". 

Catholic, Orthodox and Protestant church leaders have continued to criticise the Muslim appropriation of Hagia Sophia, founded as a church by Emperor Justinian I in 537, which was used as a mosque for five centuries under Ottoman rule before being turned into a museum in 1934 by modern Turkey's secularising founder, Mustafa Ataturk.

In a statement last week, the Brussels-based commission representing the EU's Catholic bishops, COMECE, branded the move a "blow to inter-religious dialogue", which would "distance Turkey from Europe". It added that remarks by the European Commission's foreign affairs representative, Joseph Borrell, describing it as "disappointing and regrettable", were a "clear understatement".

Speaking on Friday, President Erdogan defended Hagia Sophia's conversion as a "matter of sovereignty" and "natural right of the nation", adding that women would be included among up to 1500 Muslims participating in the building's inaugural prayer service on Friday.

Meanwhile, a state spokesman, Ibrahim Kalin, said Turkey had invited the Pope to visit the refurbished landmark, which would remain "open to all". He added that more than 1500 historic Christian icons and other artworks would be rehoused at a museum, but said the building's 1300-year-old Christian mosaics and frescoes would be "covered up but not touched".

However, Bishop Bizetti said visitors would be required to remove their shoes and enter Hagia Sophia via separate entrances for men and women, who would also have to be veiled, adding that the atmosphere and use of the building would be quite different.

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