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FEATURE: ‘Let Hagia Sophia Be’ – Cardinal Bo Decries Its Conversion as ‘Undermining Freedom of Religion or Belief’
July 27, 2020. President of Asian Bishops Says It Is His Responsibility to Denounce All Rejections of Religious Freedom for Every Persecuted Religion.

Let Hagia Sophia be, urges Cardinal Charles Bo of Yangon, Myanmar, who says its conversion represents an undermining of freedom of religion.


The President of the Federation of Asian Bishops’ Conferences (FABC) underscored this in his July 24, 2020, message provided to ZENIT English, on Hagia Sophia.

This message follows the Asian prelates July 1 appeal for prayers, in his message warning the new National Security Law imposed on Hong Kong by China could seriously threaten human freedoms and human rights. Decrying the “Law of the People’s Republic of China on Safeguarding National Security in the Hong Kong Special Administrative Region,” he illustrated how it arguably puts freedom of religion at risk.

For Freedom of Religion, I Will Go to the Ends of the Earth

In his declaration on Hagia Sophia, Cardinal Bo reminded that freedom of religion or belief is a foundational human right for everyone, of every faith and none. The right to choose, practice, express and change one’s faith – or have no faith at all – is the most basic freedom for any soul.

The Asian prelate stressed he has “consistently and passionately defended this freedom for Muslims, Buddhists, Hindus, Jews and Christians of all traditions, in my own country of Myanmar and throughout Asia.”

“Indeed often,” Cardinal Bo recalled, “I have spoken in defense of the persecuted Muslim peoples in Myanmar, and I will go on doing so without hesitation and unequivocally. For true freedom of religion requires respect for others’ freedom to practice, as well as the exercise and defense of one’s own liberty.”

“For that reason, the decision in Turkey to turn what was for 1000 years the world’s largest Cathedral – Hagia Sophia – into a mosque,” he said, “grieves me.”  As President of the Federation of Asian Bishops’ Conferences, he said, “it is incumbent on me to say so.”

“I work with my brothers and sisters from every major faith tradition every day of my life. And I will go to the ends of the earth,” he said, “to defend their rights.”

I Will Defend Every Religion’s Rights

“I will defend,” the President of Asian Bishops said, “every mosque, every synagogue, every temple possible. And I know my fellow religious leaders working for peace would do the same for me. That’s the spirit we need – to respect and defend each other’s freedoms to worship as we wish, to express our faith in accordance with our traditions, to convert freely according to our conscience, but never to be coerced, never to impose and never to seize or grab.”

“In previous epochs of history, we know that the seizure of one another’s sacred and holy buildings and sites has caused untold distress and bitterness and, in our generation, we should not be so foolish as to repeat the mistakes of history.”

Stressing reciprocity is a human and natural virtue, he pleaded: “Let Hagia Sophia be.”

The Cardinal decries outlines various injustices toward Muslims and how he has spoken out likewise against them.

“In my country, Myanmar,” he said, “mosques have been razed to the ground and I have spoken out – frequently and at some risk.”

“In China,” he continued, “the Uyghur Muslims are facing what amounts to some of the contemporary world’s worst mass atrocities and I urge the international community to investigate. In India and Sri Lanka Muslims have faced appalling violence and I have condemned such inhumanity.”

“Similarly, in Indonesia,” he said, “Ahmadiyya Muslim mosques have been destroyed by other Muslims, and churches have been forcibly closed. In Iran the Baha’is face an intense assault on their freedoms, and in Syria and Iraq sacred places have been wantonly destroyed while, sadly, closer to home, we have seen the same phenomenon in China with shrines destroyed, the Cross removed from places of worship, and even churches, like Xiangbaishu Church in Yixing, demolished.”

“Turning Hagia Sophia into a mosque,” Cardinal Bo stated, “represents a similar undermining of freedom of religion or belief, love for each other, respect for the dignity of difference.”

What does conversion do other than to divide…

“At a time when humanity is enduring intense strains due to the global pandemic,” he appealed, “we need to come together, not drive communities apart.” We must, he encouraged, “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.”

“How does turning what was once the world’s largest cathedral into a mosque do anything except sow tensions, divide people and inflict pain? How does placing Hagia Sophia into the hands of people who have no sense of its history and heritage and who will destroy its Christian identity help bring people together? How does seizing Hagia Sophia uphold Article 18 of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights? It doesn’t. It merely reopens wounds and exacerbates divides at a time when we should be healing humanity.”

Clear Assurance Needed for Hong Kong

With regard to Hong Kong, in his message earlier this month, he said: “I am concerned that the law poses a threat to basic freedoms and human rights in Hong Kong, “stressing: “This legislation potentially undermines freedom of expression, freedom of assembly, media freedom and academic freedom.”

“Arguably,” he said, “freedom of religion or belief is put at risk.”

According to many reports, Cardinal Bo, “freedom of religion or belief in Mainland China is suffering the most severe restrictions experienced since the Cultural Revolution.”

“Even if freedom of worship in Hong Kong is not directly or immediately affected, the new security law and its broad criminalization of “subversion”, “secession” and “colluding with foreign political forces” could result, for example, in the monitoring of religious preaching, the criminalization of candlelit prayer vigils, and the harassment of places of worship that offer sanctuary or sustenance to protesters. It is my prayer that this law will not give the government license to interfere in the internal affairs of religious organizations and the services they provide to the general public.”

Clear assurance, he urged, should be given for my brother bishops and fellow priests as they prepare their homilies, Protestant clergy as they ponder their sermons, and for religious leaders of other faiths too who must instruct their communities. The participation of religious bodies in social affairs, he also asserted, should not be disturbed.

“Provisions in Hong Kong’s Basic Law guarantee freedom of belief,” he pointed out, asking: “Will religious leaders now be criminalized for preaching about human dignity, human rights, justice, liberty, truth? We have learned from heavy experience that wherever freedom as a whole is undermined, freedom of religion or belief – sooner or later – is affected.”

For these reasons and “in the spirit of the prophets, martyrs and saints of our faith,” the Asian prelate said, “I urge people to pray for Hong Kong today.”

Here is Cardinal Bo’s July 24 message on Hagia Sophia, followed by his July 1 message about Hong Kong:

***

STATEMENT BY HIS EMINENCE CHARLES CARDINAL BO on HAGIA SOPHIA

Freedom of religion or belief is a foundational human right for everyone, of every faith and none. The right to choose, practice, express and change one’s faith – or have no faith at all – is the most basic freedom for any soul. And it is a freedom I have consistently and passionately defended for Muslims, Buddhists, Hindus, Jews and Christians of all traditions, in my own country of Myanmar and throughout Asia.

Indeed, often I have spoken in defense of the persecuted Muslim peoples in Myanmar, and I will go on doing so without hesitation and unequivocally. For true freedom of religion requires respect for others’ freedom to practice, as well as the exercise and defense of one’s own liberty.

For that reason, the decision in Turkey to turn what was for 1000 years the world’s largest Cathedral – Hagia Sophia – into a mosque grieves me. And as President of the Federation of Asian Bishops’ Conferences, it is incumbent on me to say so.

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. Nothing I say here should be taken by those who persecute Muslims – in Myanmar or beyond – as justification for their actions: it never can be. Persecution of any kind should be countered by people of faith, hope and love and by humanity. 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.

Faith is an affair of the soul, heart, mind and spirit. The temples of faith are within people, not buildings. Nevertheless, sacred buildings represent and embody history, heritage, art, iconography and the life-story of faiths throughout the millennia. When subverted, however, they can be used as symbols of power and subjugation.

In my country, Myanmar, mosques have been razed to the ground and I have spoken out – frequently and at some risk. In China, the Uyghur Muslims are facing what amounts to some of the contemporary world’s worst mass atrocities and I urge the international community to investigate. In India and Sri Lanka Muslims have faced appalling violence and I have condemned such inhumanity.

Similarly, In Indonesia, Ahmadiyya Muslim mosques have been destroyed by other Muslims, and churches have been forcibly closed. In Iran the Baha’is face an intense assault on their freedoms, and in Syria and Iraq sacred places have been wantonly destroyed while, sadly, closer to home, we have seen the same phenomenon in China with shrines destroyed, the Cross removed from places of worship, and even churches, like Xiangbaishu Church in Yixing, demolished.”

Turning Hagia Sophia into a mosque represents a similar undermining of freedom of religion or belief, love for each other, respect for the dignity of difference.

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.

How does turning what was once the world’s largest cathedral into a mosque do anything except sow tensions, divide people and inflict pain? How does placing Hagia Sophia into the hands of people who have no sense of its history and heritage and who will destroy its Christian identity help bring people together? How does seizing Hagia Sophia uphold Article 18 of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights? It doesn’t. It merely reopens wounds and exacerbates divides at a time when we should be healing humanity.

I work with my brothers and sisters from every major faith tradition every day of my life. And I will go to the ends of the earth to defend their rights. I will defend every mosque, every synagogue, every temple possible. And I know my fellow religious leaders working for peace would do the same for me. That’s the spirit we need – to respect and defend each other’s freedoms to worship as we wish, to express our faith in accordance with our traditions, to convert freely according to our conscience, but never to be coerced, never to impose and never to seize or grab.

In previous epochs of history, we know that the seizure of one another’s sacred and holy buildings and sites has caused untold distress and bitterness and, in our generation, we should not be so foolish as to repeat the mistakes of history.

Reciprocity is a human and natural virtue.

Let Hagia Sophia be.

Charles Bo

President of Federation of Asia Bishops’ Conferences

Archbishop of Yangon, Myanmar

—-

STATEMENT

“Law of the People’s Republic of China on Safeguarding National Security

in the Hong Kong Special Administrative Region”

A Call for Prayer by Cardinal Bo — July 1, 2020

On behalf of the Federation of Asian Bishops Conferences, I call on Christians of all traditions and people of all faiths, throughout Asia and the world, to pray for Hong Kong, and indeed for China and all her people, with great insistence.

The government of China has last night imposed a new national security law for Hong Kong.  This was done without systematic consultation with the general public. This law seriously diminishes Hong Kong’s freedoms and destroys the city’s “high degree of autonomy” promised under the “One Country, Two Systems” principle. This action brings a most significant change to Hong Kong’s constitution and is offensive to the spirit and letter of the 1997 handover agreement.

Hong Kong is one of the jewels of Asia, a “Pearl of the Orient”, a crossroads between East and West, a gateway to China, a regional hub for free trade and until now has enjoyed a healthy mixture of freedom and creativity.

A national security law is not in itself wrong. Every country has a right to legislate to safeguard protect national security. However, such legislation should be balanced with protection of human rights, human dignity and basic freedoms.  The imposition of the law by China’s National People’s Congress seriously weakens Hong Kong’s Legislative Council and Hong Kong’s autonomy. It radically changes Hong Kong’s identity.

I am concerned that the law poses a threat to basic freedoms and human rights in Hong Kong. This legislation potentially undermines freedom of expression, freedom of assembly, media freedom and academic freedom.  Arguably, freedom of religion or belief is put at risk.

According to many reports, freedom of religion or belief in Mainland China is suffering the most severe restrictions experienced since the Cultural Revolution. Even if freedom of worship in Hong Kong is not directly or immediately affected, the new security law and its broad criminalization of “subversion”, “secession” and “colluding with foreign political forces” could result, for example, in the monitoring of religious preaching, the criminalization of candlelit prayer vigils, and the harassment of places of worship that offer sanctuary or sustenance to protesters. It is my prayer that this law will not give the government license to interfere in the internal affairs of religious organizations and the services they provide to the general public.

Clear assurance should be given for my brother bishops and fellow priests as they prepare their homilies, Protestant clergy as they ponder their sermons, and for religious leaders of other faiths too who must instruct their communities. The participation of religious bodies in social affairs should not be disturbed. Provisions in Hong Kong’s Basic Law guarantee freedom of belief.  Will religious leaders now be criminalized for preaching about human dignity, human rights, justice, liberty, truth? We have learned from heavy experience that wherever freedom as a whole is undermined, freedom of religion or belief – sooner or later – is affected.

Over the past year there have been many protests in Hong Kong, most of them peaceful. However, while over 9,000 protesters have been arrested, while not a single police officer has been held accountable for their disproportionate brutality. We hold that all – protesters and police officers – are accountable according to the law. It is imperative that the underlying causes of unrest should be attended to, and that meaningful reforms and compromises are reached. This national security law threatens to exacerbate tensions, not to provide solutions.

For these reasons and in the spirit of the prophets, martyrs and saints of our faith, I urge people to pray for Hong Kong today. Pray for the leaders of China and Hong Kong, that they respect the promises made to Hong Kong, the promise to protect basic liberties and rights. May I urge all to pray for peace.

Cardinal Charles Maung Bo,

President, Federation of Asian Bishops’ Conferences.

1 July 2020

[Text of Messages were given by Cardinal Bo to ZENIT’s Deborah Lubov ]