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August 19, 2017

U.S. 2017 Annual Report on the Status of Hagia Sophia and Halki Theological Seminary

The United States Commission on International Religious Freedom (USCIRF) issued its annual religious freedom report this past Tuesday, slamming allies and foes alike for their shortcomings.

Turkey is listed among others in the report for its treatment of religious minorities. Regarding the Greek Orthodox community, the report says the following:

The Turkish government continues to require that only Turkish citizens can be members of the Greek Orthodox Church’s Holy Synod, which elects that community’s Patriarch. Since 2010, however, 30 foreign Metropolitans have been approved for dual citizenship. The Greek Orthodox Theological School of Halki remains closed, as it has been since 1971, and the Turkish government continues to cite the Greek government’s lack of religious freedom for the Turkish Muslim minority in Western Thrace as the primary reason, based on the principle of reciprocity in the 1923 Treaty of Lausanne. However, on January 6, 2016, the Turkish government permitted a Greek Orthodox Epiphany celebration in Izmir. The Greek Orthodox Patriarchate is also permitted to conduct religious services at religiously significant historical sites. For the 2015–2016 school year, a minority middle-high school in Gökçeada was also reopened. Additionally, Turkish authorities approved a request to open a Greek minority preschool on the island.

The Greek Orthodox Sumela Monastery, which has been undergoing a restoration partly funded by the government since September 2015, is scheduled to reopen in August 2018.

For several years, the Christian community in Turkey has raised concerns about a potential change in the status of the historic Hagia Sophia in Istanbul. Despite its legal status as a museum since 1935, over the years some Greek Orthodox have called for the Hagia Sophia to be reopened as a church, and some Muslims, including at times Turkish parliamentarians, have called for it to be opened as a mosque. The Turkish government has told USCIRF that it has no intention to change the Hagia Sophia’s legal status. However, during Ramadan 2016, Turkish state radio and television aired a Diyanet produced series from the Hagia Sophia that included readings of the Qur’an, and the Muslim call to prayer was broadcast for the first time in 85 years from the minarets of the museum.

Also, on June 22, 2017, Heather Nauert, spokesperson for the U.S. Department of State, when asked about Hagia Sophia being turned into a mosque from a Greek reporter, said: "The site, Hagia Sophia, is a site of extraordinary significance, and we understand that and we respect that. So we call on the Turkish Government to preserve the Hagia Sophia in a way that respects its complex history."