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US State Department Slams Turkey on Ecumenical Patriarchate, Hagia Sophia

Turkey Religious Freedom
US Secretary of State Antony Blinken addressed reporters on International Religious Freedom Day on Wednesday. Credit: US State Department

The US State Department slammed Turkey on its record on religious freedoms citing the pressures exerted on the Ecumenical Patriarchate in the 2020 International Religious Freedom Report released on Wednesday.

The report said that the Turkish government “continued to restrict efforts of minority religious groups to train their clergy,” and the Greek Orthodox Halki Seminary remained closed.

It added that it “continued not to recognize Ecumenical Patriarch Bartholomew I as the leader of the world’s approximately 300 million Orthodox Christians, consistent with the government’s stance that there was no legal obligation for it to do so.”

The report also criticized the limitations on the rights of non-Muslim religious minorities in the country.

“The government did not recognize the leadership or administrative structures of non-Muslim minorities, such as the Armenian Apostolic Patriarchate of Constantinople, the Ecumenical Patriarchate of Constantinople, and Chief Rabbinate, as legal entities, leaving them unable to buy or hold title to property or to press claims in court,” it said.

It also noted that senior US officials, including the Secretary of State, called on the Turkish government to allow the reopening of Halki Seminary and for the training of clergy members from all communities in the country.

In June 2020, the Ambassador at Large for International Religious Freedom called for the government to keep Hagia Sophia’s status as a museum.

Secretary of State Antony J. Blinken addressed reporters after the State Department’s release of the report, criticizing China and other countries but making no mention of Turkey.

Secretary Blinken first turned his remarks toward Israel the West Bank and Gaza, saying the State Department was “Concerned about what we’re seeing there. The loss of any civilian life is a tragedy. Hamas, he said, “specifically targets civilians.”

Blinken added that a State Department official will visit Israel soon and consult on the situation. America, he said, “is still committed to a two-state solution. We fully support Israel’s right to fully defend itself. Palestinians equally deserve with Israelis to live in safety.”

Religious freedom as a whole, Blinken said, “goes to the heart of what it means to be human, to think freely, to follow our conscience, to change our beliefs if our hearts and minds lead us to do so and to express our beliefs in public and in private.”

“This right is enshrined in the Universal Declaration of Human rights and in the US Constitution as well,” he pointed out.

“Co-equal with other human rights, not more or less important than to speak or assemble, or to be free from torture or any other right,” he continued.

This basic human right is also “A key element of an open and stable society,” he added. Without it, whenever this most basic human right is denied it ignites  tension.and breeds division.

According to Pew Research Center, Blinken stated, “56 countries around the globe have either ‘high’ or ‘severe’ restrictions on religious freedom. Iran continues to harass and intimidate and arrest members of its religious minorities, including Christians, Jews, Zoroastrians, Baha’is and others.”

Burma also came in for Blinken’s scrutiny due to its ongoing ethnic cleansing and persecution of its Rohingya minority, who are Muslims.

Russia, he charged, “continues to harass, detain and seize property of Jehovah’s witnesses and Muslim minorities and charge people on the pretense of religious extremism.

Nigeria also has had great upheaval in its society in recent years, including not only mass kidnappings of Christian girls by Muslims but also the Nigerian military’s massacre of hundreds of Shia Muslims in 2015, which has gone unpunished.

Saudi Arabia, Blinken went on to note, remains “the only country in the world without a Christian church — although there are more than one million Christians living there.” In addition, he said, one man, Raif Badawi, was sentenced to 2014 to a decade in prison and one thousand lashes for speaking about his beliefs.”

China, he charged, “Broadly criminalizes religious expression and continues to commit crimes against humanity and genocide against Muslim leaders and members of other religious and ethnic minority groups.”

Today, Blinken said, “I am announcing the designation of Hu Wei, former office director of the so-called ‘Central Leading Group for preventing and dealing with Heretical Religions,’ of Chengdu, for his involvement in gross violations of human rights, namely the arbitrary  detention of Falun Gong practitioners.

The designation is pursuant to Section 7031(c) of the Department of State, Foreign Operations, and Related Programs Appropriations Act of 2021.

“We will continue to consider all appropriate tools to promote accountability for those responsible for human rights violations and abuses in China and elsewhere,” he added.

“As of today,” Blinken stated, “Wei and his immediate family members are no longer allowed to enter into the United States.” Later, the Office of Religious Freedom head Dan Nadel remarked that the situation in Xinjiang, where millions of Muslim minority people are currently incarcerated in gigantic camps, “shocks the conscience.”

Blinken also noted that there has been a rise in anti-Semitism and anti-Muslim hatred across the United States and Europe, while remarking that some governments have taken positive steps to reduce religious freedom violations, including Turkmenistan, which recently released Jehovah’s Witnesses who had been jailed as conscientious objectors.

The US, he said, will continue to “protect and defend religious freedom around the world” and extend the country’s longstanding leadership in this area.

Turkey and religious freedom

However, Blinken did not bring up the ongoing marginalization of religious history that has taken place in the recent past in Turkey, with the razing of historic churches and the reconversion of an iconic Orthodox cathedral to a Muslim mosque.

The past several years have seen greatly heightened tensions between the West and Turkey as it leveled several historic Byzantine churches and turned what was once the greatest cathedral in all of Eastern Christianity, Hagia Sophia, back into a mosque last year after it had served as a museum for decades.

In his New Year’s Day address to the nation in January of 2021, Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan called his controversial decision to convert the Hagia Sophia into a mosque the “crown of 2020.”

Hagia Sophia, listed by UNESCO as a World Heritage Site, is one of the holiest sites in Orthodox Christianity.

Hagia Sophia reconversion “a step backward”

Built where a fourth-century church once stood, Hagia Sophia was constructed in the sixth century and is one of the best surviving examples of Byzantine architecture.

After the Fall of Constantinople in 1453, Hagia Sofia was converted into a mosque, and many precious mosaics were destroyed.

The rise of secularism in Turkey during the early twentieth century, spearheaded by President Kemal Ataturk, culminated in the transformation of the site from a mosque into a museum in the 1930s.

Turkey’s decision to turn the site back into a mosque once again faced overwhelming criticism internationally. Many viewed the act as a nod to President Erdogan’s base of religious nationalists.

In an official statement released after the fact, the Parliamentary Assembly of the Council of Europe (PACE) condemned Turkey’s July 13, 2020 decision to convert Hagia Sophia from a museum into a mosque.

PACE’s Committee on Culture, Science, Education & Media labeled the act as “a discriminatory step backward, that clearly undermines Turkey’s secular identity and multicultural legacy.”

Office of International Religious Freedom Senior Official Dan Nadel also took questions from the press in the Briefing Room immediately following Secretary Blinken’s remarks. The report, Nadel said, at 2,394 pages, “is an indispensable source for nations, religious leaders, academics and individuals the world over” in recording violations of this most basic human right.

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