Your readers may have received an email requesting them to sign a petition supporting the “restoration and reopening” of Hagia Sophia. The email states that this petition would oppose Turkey’s entry into the European Union unless or until the Turkish government “restored” Hagia Sophia (currently a museum) to a church. To my mind, Hagia Sophia is the most magnificient edifice in the world. I believe that its mosaics – particularly the 14th century Deisis – is the greatest work of art ever conceived! However, this campaign is misguided and lamentable. It demeans the current survival struggle that is unfolding before us regarding the life of the Ecumenical Patriarchate to which the world community and the Orthodox faithful have barely awaken. The call to action to which all women and men of conscience should respond is the call to protect the living institution of the Ecumenical Patriarch of Constantinople.
For the greater part of eighteen centuries, the Ecumenical Patriarchate has preserved and passed on the Christian message. Through countless and unimaginable hardships it has remained as a testament to faith and the enlightment of all mankind. Over the course of the last several decades, elements in the Turkish government have systematically moved to extinguish the Ecumenical Patriarchate. Not only has an environment of religious intolerance been fomented, certain members of the Turkish state have persecuted the Orthodox clergy and laity, closed down its only theological school, and confiscated its properties. The litany of aggressive persecutions is vast and ghastly.
Instead of being beguiled in the comfortable click of an email signature endorsing a petition to “restore and reopen” Hagia Sophia, let us all commit to taking profound action to ensure the perpetual health of the Ecumenical Patriarchate. Here are some of the many things you can do:
1. Make a donation to the Order of Saint Andrew for its Patriarchal Defense Initiatives. These initiatives will support legal actions in seeking governmental intervention against the repression of the Ecumenical Patriarchate in the courts and governments of the United States, Europe and the Middle East;
2. Write President George W. Bush, copying Secretary of State Rice and House Speaker Dennis Hastert, and your Senators and Congressmen, your state, city and local representatives stating something like the following: America was established, in part, because of the desire for religious freedom. The First Amendment makes it very clear that freedom of worship is a fundamental human right recognized by the Founding Fathers and the framers of the United States Constitution. Turkey, as an ally of the United States, ought to recognize legally the Ecumenical Patriarchate; return its confiscated properties back to the Mother Church; not interfere in Patriarchal elections or in the Ecumenical Patriarchate’s canonical governance; and immediately open Halki Theological School which has been closed since 1971. For Turkey to join the European Union it must act like Europeans and Americans; i.e. recognize fundamental religious freedom and inalienable human rights.
3. Contact our brothers and sisters of all faith and creeds, whether they be Orthodox, Catholic or Protestant – Muslim or Jewish and ask them to join in a united stance for religious tolerance and freedom of faith.
These are the true calls to action to which we must respond. Let us resolve to ourselves and the world that a true tragedy of our generation – the extinguishment of the Ecumenical Patriarchate – must be averted.
Anthony J. Limberakis, MD