Asian cardinal denounces Muslim resumed takeover of Catholic cathedral Hagia Sophia

Asian cardinal denounces Muslim resumed takeover of Catholic cathedral Hagia Sophia

A Catholic cardinal who is the leader of the Asian bishops has strongly condemned the move of the Turkish government to allow the former Catholic cathedral Hagia Sophia, once the most important church in Eastern Christianity, to be turned back into a mosque.

Cardinal Charles Bo said that not only does the move “grieve” him, but he sees it as an “assault on freedom of religion or belief.”

“How does turning what was once the world’s largest cathedral into a mosque do anything except sow tensions, divide people and inflict pain?” asked Cardinal Bo, president of the Federation of Asian Bishops’ Conferences and archbishop of Yangon in the nation of Myanmar, nestled between India and China. Bo was created a cardinal by Pope Francis in 2015.

Bo’s statement was released on Friday, July 24 — the day Hagia Sophia was used for the first time as a Muslim place of worship in almost a century (read full statement below). Just a few weeks earlier, the Turkish government had decided to turn the building back into a mosque.

Originally built in the 6th century, Hagia Sophia was the largest church of the Byzantine Empire. In 1453, when Muslim invaders attacked and took over the city of Constantinople, it was converted into a mosque. Kemal Atatürk, as the first president of the Republic of Turkey, turned the mosque into a museum in 1934.

“How does placing Hagia Sophia into the hands of people who have no sense of its history and heritage and who will destroy its Christian identity help bring people together?” continued Cardinal Bo. “How does seizing Hagia Sophia uphold Article 18 of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights? It doesn’t. It merely reopens wounds and exacerbates divides at a time when we should be healing humanity.”

Article 18 of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, which was signed by Turkey, states, “Everyone has the right to freedom of thought, conscience and religion; this right includes freedom to change his religion or belief, and freedom, either alone or in community with others and in public or private, to manifest his religion or belief in teaching, practice, worship and observance.”

Cardinal Bo recounted several instances of religious freedom being violated in Asia. He said “mosques have been razed to the ground and I have spoken out — frequently and at some risk. In China, the Uyghur Muslims are facing what amounts to some of the contemporary world’s worst mass atrocities and I urge the international community to investigate. In India and Sri Lanka Muslims have faced appalling violence and I have condemned such inhumanity.”

“In Indonesia, Ahmadiyya Muslim mosques have been destroyed by other Muslims, and churches have been forcibly closed,” he added.

“In Iran the Baha’is face an intense assault on their freedoms, and in Syria and Iraq sacred places have been wantonly destroyed while, sadly, closer to home, we have seen the same phenomenon in China with shrines destroyed, the Cross removed from places of worship, and even churches, like Xiangbaishu Church in Yixing, demolished.”

In his statement, Bo repeatedly stressed the importance of religious freedom.

“I work with my brothers and sisters from every major faith tradition every day of my life,” he explained. “And I will go to the ends of the earth to defend their rights. I will defend every mosque, every synagogue, every temple possible. And I know my fellow religious leaders working for peace would do the same for me.”

“That’s the spirit we need — to respect and defend each other’s freedoms to worship as we wish, to express our faith in accordance with our traditions, to convert freely according to our conscience, but never to be coerced, never to impose and never to seize or grab.”

Bo warned against repeating the mistakes of the past, stating, “In previous epochs of history we know that the seizure of one another’s sacred and holy buildings and sites has caused untold distress and bitterness and in our generation we should not be so foolish as to repeat the mistakes of history.”

He said “the decision in Turkey to turn what was for 1000 years the world’s largest Cathedral — Hagia Sophia — into a mosque grieves me. And as President of the Federation of Asian Bishops’ Conferences, it is incumbent on me to say so.”

Turkey is indeed mostly located in Asia, with a small part that can be counted as belonging to the European continent.

Bo added he did not want to “deny my Muslim brothers and sisters places of worship. On the contrary, I defend their right to do so as much as I defend everyone’s. Nothing I say here should be taken by those who persecute Muslims — in Myanmar or beyond — as justification for their actions: it never can be.”

“Persecution of any kind should be countered by people of faith, hope and love and by humanity,” he said. “But nor can the decision to turn Hagia Sophia into a mosque be seen as anything other than an unnecessary assault on freedom of religion or belief.”

The Greek Orthodox Archdiocese of America, supported by the United States Conference of Catholic Bishops, had designated Friday, July 24 as a “day of mourning and of manifest grief.”

“We ask that every Church toll its bells in lamentation on this day. We call for every flag of every kind that is raised on the Church property be lowered to half-mast on this day. And we enjoin every Church in our Holy Archdiocese to chant the Akathist Hymn in the evening of this day, just as we chant it on the Fifth Friday of the Great and Holy Fast,” wrote the Greek Orthodox bishops in the United States.

Turkish presidential spokesman İbrahim Kalın had told CNN that Christian mosaics and imagery within Hagia Sophia would be preserved. “They’re part of our cultural heritage, these beautiful mosaics describing Jesus Christ, Virgin Mary, and other Christian personalities,” he emphasized.

“They will be preserved untouched. We’re making some arrangements that during Muslim prayer times, they will be covered, but not touched, so that they will not be eroded or affected by light or by anything else,” Kalın said, pointing out that Hagia Sophia will remain accessible to tourists and visitors.