Greek-US leader unveils initiative on Hagia Sophia; Congressional hearing next Wednesday

The nascent international initiative to restore the Hagia Sophia Cathedral in Istanbul as a place of worship for all the world’s Christians was outlined here on Thursday by veteran Greek-American political leader Chris Spirou, less than a week before a public hearing is scheduled on the religious monument’s condition at the US Congress.

Spirou, a noted New Hampshire Democratic leader and long-time activist for Greek national issues in the United States, said the organisation he heads up (Free Agia Sophia Council of America) will present evidence showing the “violation” of Eastern Orthodoxy’s most renowned basilica over the past 554 years.

“We will demonstrate that the violations have turned this most sacred site for Christians into an international bazaar. We will present our belief, as a Council that believes in human rights, that no government has the right to determine the use of a church or has the right to appoint or approve of religious faiths, to ordain priests or to determine holy figures,” Spirou charged in a clear reference to the Turkish government.

He nevertheless stressed — at the beginning of his comments during a press conference in Athens — that the initiative has absolutely nothing to do with Greece or sensitive Greek-Turkish relations and US-Turkish relations, or even Greek-US-Turkish relations. He also said he has had no contacts with Greek officials or the Ecumenical Patriarchate over the campaign, noting that he learned of his invitation to appear before the joint Congressional Human Rights Caucus while on a visit to Athens.

“The Ecumenical Patriarch is in the same position as the Hagia Sophia. He (the Patriarch) is in captivity … I don’t want to worsen his position,” Spirou said in answer to a press question.

He also cited the restoration of a cathedral in the Kremlin and recent court decisions in Hungary as a precedent for restoring a place of worship to its original function.

Moreover, he emphasised that the Hagia Sofia is to Orthodox Christians what St. Peter’s Basilica in Rome is to Roman Catholics, or the Wailing Wall to Jews and Mecca to Muslims.

Finally, he distanced himself from any potential “provocation” vis-à-vis Turkey, saying “the time has come for the leaders of the country in which the Hagia Sophia is located to see the legitimacy of our demands and join us in returning it to its rightful place, as a church of the Christian faith.”

The Congressional Human Rights Caucus will convene next Wednesday to focus on reports of violations, brought up by the Council, at the Hagia Sophia in Istanbul, the renowned early Byzantine-era cathedral that was converted into a mosque after Constantinople’s fall in 1453 and later turned into a museum in the early 20th century with the establishment of the Republic of Turkey.

The hearing, held by the joint Congressional Human Rights Caucus (CHRC), marks the first time that Congress will hear testimony on the situation concerning Hagia Sophia.

The hearing will be chaired by Congressman Tom Lantos (D-Ca), the chairman of the influential House Committee on Foreign Affairs, with Spirou representing the Free Agia Sophia Council of America group during his testimony before the caucus.

Source: Athens News Agency

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