As Hagia Sophia opened for Muslim prayers on Friday for the first time in 86 years, a leading Asian cardinal said that the decision to turn the building back into a mosque will reopen wounds and intensify divisions.
In a statement sent via email on July 24, Cardinal Charles Bo said that he was grieved by Turkey’s decision to change the status of the 6th-Century Byzantine cathedral.
“How does turning what was once the world’s largest cathedral into a mosque do anything except sow tensions, divide people and inflict pain?” the Burmese cardinal asked. “It doesn’t. It merely reopens wounds and exacerbates divides at a time when we should be healing humanity.”
The archbishop of Yangon, Myanmar’s capital city, said that he had spoken “consistently and passionately” in defence of religious freedom both in his homeland and elsewhere in Asia.
“Indeed, often I have spoken in defence of the persecuted Muslim peoples in Myanmar, and I will go on doing so without hesitation and unequivocally,” he said.
“For true freedom of religion requires respect for others’ freedom to practice, as well as the exercise and defence of one’s own liberty.
“For that reason, the decision in Turkey to turn what was for 1,000 years the world’s largest cathedral –Hagia Sophia – into a mosque grieves me.”
Bo, who was elected president of the Federation of Asian Bishops’ Conferences in 2018, continued: “It grieves me not because I 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. 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.”
Turkish president Recep Tayyip Erdogan signed a decree converting Hagia Sophia into a mosque, hours after a court declared that the building’s conversion into a museum in 1934 was illegal.
Bo said that his concern over the status of the UNESCO World Heritage Site was part of his wider desire to uphold religious liberty around the world.
When Hagia Sophia reopened as the Ayasofya Mosque on July 24, Erdogan and other officials joined hundreds of worshipers inside the building for Friday prayers, while large crowds filled the streets outside.
“At a time when humanity is enduring intense strains due to the global pandemic, we need to come together, not drive communities apart. We need to put aside identity politics, abandon power plays, prevent ethnic and religious conflicts and value the dignity of difference among every human being. And we must cherish diversity and the unity we find within it,” Bo said.