Wednesday, January 11, 2012

The Hagia Sophia, and Freedom of Religion

The Hagia Sophia in Istanbul, not far from the well known Blue Mosque, has been the centre point of the Eastern Orthodox Church for over one thousand years. The first recorded structure dates back to the 4th century. The current structure was built in the 6th century. In 1453, Sultan Mehmed II conquered Constantinople, renamed it to Istanbul and converted the Hagia Sophia to an Islamic mosque. Then, in 1935, with the secularization of Turkey under Kemal Ataturk, the Hagia Sophia was declared to be a state-owned museum. It still is an imposing edifice today.

The Hagia Sophia is a religious monument to Christian heritage and beliefs and has served as the principal church of the Orthodox Church for over one thousand years. Despite that history, it could not be re-dedicated as a church under the current laws in Turkey. The country, though officially separating the affairs of church and state as per Ataturk’s reforms, still upholds the Islamic law which prevents any non-Islamic faith from owning any property, for any purpose. What is largely unknown in western countries is that no faith, other than Islam, is permitted to possess any property whatsoever in an Islamic country, not even in Turkey.

In recent years, many western, predominantly Christian countries have gone to great lengths to accommodate customs and religions of immigrants from other parts of the globe within their realms. Especially the believers of Islam are vigorously claiming various rights based on the basis of ‘freedom of religion’ enshrined in the secular laws of much of the western world.

Believers in Islam, and even more so their religious leaders, should insist on the same freedom of religion and associated rights that they claim for themselves, for any non-Islamic believers in Islamic countries, with equal fervor. Without such affirmations, both in word and deed, Islamic claims to religious freedom (in the West) are mere hollow requests for benevolence for their own sake. True freedom can only be gained by advocating it for others as well as oneself.

Foremost though, it should be incumbent for any leader of western world countries to insist on full reciprocity of a (western style) freedom of religion in Islamic countries, when contemplating any financial assistance to them or a political engagement.

The current status of the Christian Hagia Sophia and other places of non-Islamic worship demonstrate a continued oppression of non-Islamic religions in Islamic countries, even in ‘secular’ Turkey. The West needs to recognize such and act accordingly.

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