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Turkish Coptic and Muslims' coexistence and impact of recent decision of Supreme Court on Turkish minorities By Afshain Afzal

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There recent decision by Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan to honour the decision of Supreme Court of Turkey for conversion of portion of Hagia Sophia Museum into a Mosque was criticized by many world leaders and nations. The case was pending before Turkey’s highest court for one and a half decade to ascertain future of the Hagia Sophia museum in Istanbul; if the site was personal property of Ottoman Sultan Mehmet II, who conquered the city in 1453 and built Mosque, and that a 1934 decision to turn the building into a secular museum should be annulled. The evidences placed before the court revealed that the site was personal property of Ottoman Sultan Mehmet II, who conquered the city in 1453, and decision to turn the building into a secular museum should be left up to the government if it allows it to be turned back into a Mosque. President Erdogan converted a portion of museum into mosque and rest remained as museum. Christians consider it cathedral of Hagia Sophia and a symbol of interfaith and intercultural dialogue.  It is being discussed that with the Turkish presidential decision, Turkey's relations with the EU, US, Greece, Russia and UNESCO would suffer badly.

Before we finally comment reconversion of Hagia Sophia Museum in Istanbul or the UNESCO listed Hagia Sophia (Divine Wisdom), known in Turkey as “Ayasofya-i Kebir Camii Serifi” into a Mosque, we have to understand that the Coptic Christians of Turkey, Middle East and Africa are different from rest of Christians. They believe in monotheism, pray five times a day, women usually wear headscarves as a sign of honor and purity, and both men and women remove their shoes before entering the sanctuary of the Church. Coptic considers same sex activities and relations outside the marriage as unpardonable great sin. In fact, since the times of Last Prophet of Islam Muhammad Alhe Salam (Sal Allah Ho Alhe Wasalam) Coptic were following the true path and were never converted or asked not to follow their religion. There are numerous verses in holy Al Quran which allow Muslims to inter-dine and inter-marry with followers of Judaism and Christianity (Coptic), who believe in monotheism and last day of Judgment.

The Christian community in Turkey is led by the Coptic. Ecumenical Patriarch Dimitri Bartholomew claims to be 270th Patriarch of Constantinople and direct successor of the Christian’s Apostle Andrew and the spiritual head of Christians worldwide. The Turkish government does not recognize the title Ecumenical Patriarch, or Bartholomew's role as an international religious leader as he is officially viewed as a local bishop who leads around 3,000 Greek citizens in Turkey. Even if the Turkish government recognize him successor of the Christian’s Apostle Andrew, Bartholomew seems to be the last Patriarch of Constantinople as he is the only Turkish national Patriarch while others are not Turkish nationals and law require patriarch to be a Turkish citizen. So with a hope that Turkish government will allow Turkish citizenship to Orthodox archbishops overseas a few archbishops have applied but their cases are pending. Regarding the conversion of Sofia Museum into Mosque, Ecumenical Patriarch Bartholomew said in a statement, “The conversion of Hagia Sophia into a Mosque will disappoint millions of Christians around the world.” Other Christian leaders were more or less holder of similar opinion.

Coptic are very particular about the character of their archbishops. If we recall, a week ago, Pope Tawadros II of Alexandria and Patriarch of St. Mark Diocese announced defrockment of priest Rewiess Aziz Khalil on 18 July 2020, following allegations of sexual abuse of children. A resident of North America, Rewiess Aziz Khalil was a priest of the Diocese of Minya and Abu Qurqas. He was stripped of his title in February 2014 and returned him to his pre-ordination name Yousef Aziz Khalil. In the present letter Pope Tawadros II  directed Egypt and in the United States of America to revoke any recognition of Yousef Aziz Khalil as a priest of the Coptic Orthodox Church. In other words this clarifies that Christians of Turkey (Coptic) and Muslims coexist and the recent decision of Supreme Court of Turkey will not cause too much impact of the Turkish minorities.  

The relationship between the Ottomans and the Christians did not evolve hostility and conflict, as is generally assumed. History is witness that there was very cordial relation between the Christian and Ottoman Muslims even before Muslims took over of Constantinople in 1453. Ottoman Emperor Murad II married a Byzantine Princess while Hass Murad Pasha (died 1468) and his younger brother Mesih Pasha (died 1501) were nephews of the last Byzantine Emperor Constantine XI Paleologos (1404–1453)If we recall, John VII Palaeogus died childless in 1448, a dispute erupted between Constantine XI Palaeologus (1404 - 1453) and his brother Demetrios Palaiologos over the throne. Demetrios drew support for his opposition to the union between the Orthodox and Catholic churches. The Empress Helena, acting as regent, supported Constantine. They appealed to the Ottoman Sultan Murad II to arbitrate the disagreement. Murad decided in favor of Constantine and on 6 January 1449 Constantine was crowned in the cathedral at Mistra by the local bishop. 

                Similarly, Sultan Mehmed II (1432 – 1481) in order to repopulate the Istanbul, deported Muslim and Christian groups in Anatolia and the Balkans and forced them to settle in Constantinople. He restored the Greek Orthodox Patriarchate in 1454 and established a Jewish Grand Rabbi and an Armenian Patriarch in the city.  There were many Christian princesses from Royal family who married Ottomans. Anna Hatun, the daughter of Trabzon Greek Emperor David Komnenos and Helena Kantakuzenos was married to Zognush Pasha Ottoman military commander in 1461.

The Halki seminary, located in Forest land, educated future Greek Orthodox bishops, theologians and patriarchs for more than a century but the Turkish Supreme Court ordered its closure in 1971. Since then, it's remained unoccupied. Theological School of Halki was founded outside Istanbul in 1844. In March 2012, Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan’s announced decision to open Halki Seminary for which evenUS President Barck Obama appreciated Turkish President for his efforts to protect religious minorities. In the same regard, Turkey’s Council of Foundations returned 190 hectares of forestland to the Theological School of Halki through Greek Orthodox foundation in January 2013. Government of Turkey also allowed the liturgical celebration by the Ecumenical Patriarch at the historic Sumela Monastery and the return of the former Greek Orphanage on Buyukada Island to the Ecumenical Patriarchate. In addition, Coptic Monastery of Mor Augin, also known as the Monastery of St. Augin was reopened in 2010.

In the recent past, Turkey reopened the iconic Bulgarian St Stephen's Church in  Balat, Istanbul  in January 2018 after seven years of restoration as its original wooden structure was destroyed in a fire. President Recep Tayyip Erdogan and Prime Minister Binali Yıldırım attended the opening ceremony of the Church built in 1898. Erdogan said reopening of the Iron Church was an important message for the international community. He said, "I believe it is the responsibility of the state to ensure everyone can worship freely," adding that Turkey has supported the restoration of more than 5,000 artifacts in the past 15 years.

In the latest development, after Turkish President Erdogan Sofia Museum as Mosque and held Jumma prayers on Friday, around 350,000 Muslims offered their Friday's prayer in the Mosque. The President also announced appointment of Mehmet Boynukalin, a professor of Islamic law at Istanbul's Marmara University, and Ferruh Mustuer and Bunjamin Topcuoglu, the Imams of two other Istanbul mosques. There is no doubt, the Turkish President Erdogan has done for the minorities in Turkey, especially the Christians is worth appreciation. One wonders should we forget good things about the Ottoman Empire as well as present Turkish Muslims what they did for the Christian and Jews or we should follow the band wagon of media in a critical mode. If Christians really consider cathedral of Hagia Sophia as a symbol of interfaith and intercultural dialogue so this is the high time to respect Turkish highest court’s verdict. It is high time that Christians must unite under Ecumenical Patriarch Dimitri Bartholomew for the union between the Orthodox, Catholic and Protestants churches. This would allow the Muslims and the Coptic to clear their apprehensions and joint work for the development of Turkey.

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