OXFORD, England (CNS), September 9, 2005 -- Swiss scholars have petitioned the European Parliament to ask that Istanbul's sixth-century Church of Hagia Sophia, now a museum, be restored for Christian worship before Turkey joins the European Union.
"This is not a public building that changed ownership with the conquest of a war -- Hagia Sophia is a place of God, Christendom's grandest place of worship for over 900 years, and arguably the most perfect and beautiful church erected by any Christian people," the group said in statement on a Hagia Sophia blog, or Web log.
"Turkey has long severed its ties with darker aspects of its Ottoman past. It aspires to join the European Union. The time has come to restore Hagia Sophia's spirituality as a place of Christian worship," the Swiss scholars said.
The statement noted that Turkey was trying to convince the European Union it deserved membership by 2015.
"We need a million signatures to force the European Union to consider this proposal seriously and debate it immediately," said the group, chaired by Zurich University psychologist Angeliki Papagika.
The Church of Hagia Sophia, which means holy wisdom, is considered the mother church of Orthodox and of Byzantine Catholics and was rebuilt in its present form in the sixth century. Byzantine Catholic Web sites also have appealed for its return to Christianity.
The church was used as a mosque after the city's capture by Ottoman Turks in 1453 and was turned into a museum in 1934 by Turkey's first president, Kemal Ataturk.
Christians have often complained of discrimination in Turkey, most of whose 67 million inhabitants are Sunni Muslims. Although the government has pledged to protect religious minorities, a 2002 religious rights law was met with skepticism by Christian communities, including Turkey's 32,000-strong Catholic Church, which has vicariates in Istanbul and Anatolia and an archdiocese in Izmir.
Turkish officials repeatedly have reneged on promises to allow the Ecumenical Patriarchate of Constantinople to reopen its theological faculty, forcibly closed in the early 1970s, and to make essential repairs to its 72 churches in Istanbul.
Pope Benedict XVI is expected to visit Turkey for the Nov. 30 feast of St. Andrew, the patron of the ecumenical patriarchate.
Last November, Catholic bishops from European Union nations declared support for Turkey's proposed membership, but warned the country would have to "respect fundamental rights."
In August 2004, Pope Benedict, then-Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger, told France's Le Figaro daily that Turkish membership would "contradict Europe's Christian character."
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