Academic journal article Forum on Public Policy: A Journal of the Oxford Round Table

Resolving the Religious Freedom Issue of the Ecumenical Patriarchate

Academic journal article Forum on Public Policy: A Journal of the Oxford Round Table

Resolving the Religious Freedom Issue of the Ecumenical Patriarchate

Article excerpt

"The participants in the Conference on Peace and Tolerance demand that no hostile acts be perpetrated upon any peaceful group or region ... we demand the initiation of constructive dialogues to solve outstanding issues between those of different faiths; and demand the right to practice one's religion in freedom and with dignity."

The Bosporus Declaration (Istanbul, Turkey, 1994)


Abandoned since the Armenian genocide of 1915, the Armenian Orthodox Church of Surb Khach (Holy Cross) was reopened on March 29, 2007 after undergoing a high-profile restoration (Armenian News Network, 2007). Located on the island of Akhtamar in eastern Turkey's Lake Van, Ankara hopes the highly publicized renovation of its country's best known Armenian ecclesiastical building will improve tense relations with Europe, the United States and neighboring Armenia. The reopening of Surb Khach came two months after Turkey's most outspoken Armenian journalist, Hrant Dink, was shot dead in Istanbul. The event also occurred amid continuing pressure from the European Union on Turkey to improve its policies of religious freedom.

The two-year $1.9 million restoration of the Surb Khach Church, one of the most outstanding examples of 10th Century Orthodox Christian architecture, is a welcome gesture of religious tolerance by the Republic of Turkey, a nation that is considered by the International Religious Freedom Report (2006), released by the United States Bureau of Democracy, Human Rights, and Labor, as a "violator of international laws by imposing restrictions on religious groups and on religious expression." Turkey's decision, however, not to place (re-place) a cross on the apex of the church's octagonal dome and to confine its usage to that of a museum, reveals that the country has no intention of significantly changing its attitudes towards religious minorities living within its boundaries.

The re-opening of the Armenian Church of the Holy Cross epitomizes the problems associated with a more ancient Orthodox cathedral in dire need of liberating restoration in Turkey, namely the Church of Hagia Sophia (Holy Wisdom). Erected in Constantinople (Istanbul) by the Eastern Roman Emperor Justinian in 532 A.D., Hagia Sophia is emblematic of a vexing challenge facing the current Republic of Turkey. What is the proper church-state balance with the cathedral's original owner, the Ecumenical Patriarchate?

Universally recognized as one of the most prominent ancient centers (Sees) of Christendom, the Ecumenical Patriarchate (EP) was founded as "the Church of Byzantium" by Saint Andrew the Apostle (36 AD), a millennium before the construction of Surb Khach. One need only recall that the doctrines of the undivided and universal Christian Church were defined and solidified during the seven Ecumenical Councils, all of which were convened under its religious jurisdiction, to understand the vital leadership role played by the EP throughout history.

It was in the jurisdictional territory of the EP that the New Testament was codified, the ecclesiastical framework of the Christian Church established, the creedal formulas developed, and the magnificent cathedral of Hagia Sophia constructed. Symbolizing the Orthodox Christian view that understands the Church and the state as two equivalent institutions, two gifts of God, each with their respective domains of concern (Symphonic), Emperor Justinian and Patriarch Menas opened the great domed cathedral on Christmas in 537. In accordance with the ideals of "Symphonic" they entered hand in hand.

When Constantinople fell to the Ottoman Turks in 1453 A.D., the Christian basilica of Hagia Sophia was converted into a mosque. While its magnificent mosaic icons were, at first, allowed to remain, they were eventually removed or covered in keeping with Islam's ban on the graphic depiction of spiritual beings. In 1934, however, after establishing Turkey as a secular state in which religion was to be held in a sphere separate from government, law, and politics, the first president of Turkey, Mustafa Kemal Ataturk (1923-1938), ordered that Hagia Sophia be closed as a mosque and her icons restored. …

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