By / Aug 24

President Recep Tayyip Erdogan of Turkey announced that he will convert the longstanding landmark in Istanbul, the Hagia Sophia, back to a mosque after being a museum for over 80 years. This announcement follows Turkey’s Council of State’s decision to annul the 1934 presidential decree that originally designated the structure as a museum and a new presidential decree that transferred authority of the Hagia Sophia to Turkey’s Religious Affairs Directorate. 

What is the Hagia Sophia?

The Hagia Sophia is the enduring architectural marvel that has stood as a significant landmark in Constantinople, or present day Istanbul, Turkey, for almost 1,500 years. It was originally constructed under the authority of Byzantine Emperor Constantius in 360 A.D. to be a basilica. The first construction of the Hagia Sophia was covered by a wooden roof and burned to the ground in 404 A.D. by political rioters. It was rebuilt in 415 A.D., but the second construction also burned down during the Nika revolts. In 537 A.D., the third and final Hagia Sophia was constructed, and it remains to this day.

For the Orthodox Church, the Hagia Sophia became the center of church life, faith, and ceremonies celebrating the new emperors. It was a pivotal part of Byzantine culture and politics for almost 900 years. During the Crusades, Constantinople was under Roman control for a short time, but the Byzantines reclaimed the city and repaired the damage done to the Hagia Sophia.

In 1453 A.D., the Ottomans conquered the city of Constantinople and renovated the Hagia Sophia into a mosque. Much of the original Orthodox mosaics and art found in the Hagia Sophia were covered by Islamic calligraphy and other art. The Hagia Sophia remained a mosque until 1935, when it was formally converted into a museum, operated by the government, that displays artifacts and art from every period of the church’s history.

Why is this controversial?

Given the Hagia Sophia’s history under different religions and rulers, there are multiple groups today that consider the landmark an important part of their history. Turning the Hagia Sophia into a museum honored all of the religious ties to the church and symbolized civil engagement between Christianity and Islam. It was even designated as a World Heritage Site in 1985 by UNESCO. The conversion from museum to mosque is a disruption of the peaceful status quo of the Hagia Sophia’s diverse history that has stood for nearly a century. 

Religious and political leaders that value the Hagia Sophia as a cultural site have stated that it is best left as a museum due to the highly contested nature of the building. For many years it has been a symbol of pluralism and served as an inspiration of awe for all who have seen the magnificence of the Hagia Sophia. 

Surrounding President Erdogan’s announcement, the ecumenical patriarch of Istanbul, U.S. Secretary of State Mike Pompeo, the Russian Orthodox Church, and the foreign minister of Cyprus have spoken out against the decision to convert the Hagia Sophia back into a mosque because of the division and discord it will bring in the Republic of Turkey. Secretary Pompeo argues that Turkey should continue to represent its diverse history through the Hagia Sophia and that it should remain accessible for all people to enjoy and engage. 

Why is this important?

Deciding to remove Christian Orthodox heritage and history from the Hagia Sophia is damaging to the relationship between Christians and Muslims in Turkey, and it will be devastating for Christians who still consider the Hagia Sophia as a sacred space for worship. This landmark of peace and inspiration for many religions is now being used for one religion alone to the exclusion of the rest. This change disrespects the Orthodox Church and the faithful who visited the Hagia Sophia to worship.

What happens now?

On Friday, July 24, thousands of people gathered at the Hagia Sophia to participate in prayers at the historic Muslim house of worship for the first time in 86 years. Erdogan promised that the Hagia Sophia Grand Mosque is a place that “people of all religions can visit” and that it will still be a place that serves all believers. The artifacts previously displayed in the Hagia Sophia will be moved to another building in a separate museum. Going forward, the Orthodox Church will have to grapple with its history being removed from the Hagia Sophia and being further marginalized in the Republic of Turkey.

ERLC Intern Mary Beth Teague contributed to this article.

By / Oct 15

After spending two years imprisoned in Turkey on spurious terrorism-related charges, an American pastor was freed last week and allowed to return to the United States.

In October 2016, after more than 20 years of serving as an evangelical missionary in Turkey, Andrew Brunson was summoned to a local police station. He thought he was going to receive a long-awaited permanent residence card. But instead, Brunson was notified he was being deported because he was a “threat to national security.” He was held for 63 days while being denied access to an attorney—and even denied access to a Bible.

Brunson was then taken to a counter-terrorism center in Izmir and then taken to court, where he was accused of having ties to an American-based cleric, Fetullah Gulen, who is being blamed for a coup attempt in July 2016. Brunson had been detained for more than 500 days when, this past March, Turkish prosecutors issued an official indictment calling for him to receive life in prison. “I don’t accept any of the allegations,” Pastor Andrew Brunson told the judge on the first day of the trial in April. “I have never done anything against Turkey. On the contrary, I love Turkey. I have been praying for Turkey for 25 years.”

According to Al-Monitor, when Brunson was asked during the trial about his alleged sympathies with Fetullah Gulen, he responded, “This is an insult to my beliefs. I am a Christian. I do not belong to Islamic religious groups. Their aims are different to my aims. I have no connection with any [Gulen-associated] organization.”

Earlier this month, a Turkish court sentenced Brunson to three years and one month in prison, but chose to release him based on his time already served, as well as his manner during the proceedings. Before the verdict, Brunson told the court, “I am an innocent man. I love Jesus. I love Turkey.”

On Saturday, President Trump welcomed Brunson to the Oval Office. The pastor thanked Trump for working to secure his freedom, and then led his family in prayer for the president. “You really fought for us,” Bruson told the president.

The U.S. Commission on International Religious Freedom (USCIRF) said they “welcomed with great satisfaction” Brunson’s release, but warned that we should not lose sight of other religious freedom concerns in Turkey. Earlier in 2018, USCIRF designated Turkey as a country with serious religious freedom violations, placing the country on its Tier 2 list. The ERLC spoke with USCIRF Commissioner and Vice Chair Kristina Arriaga and International Religious Freedom Ambassador Sam Brownback about Pastor Brunson in August on the Capitol Conversations Podcast.

Russell Moore, ERLC president, said that Pastor Brunson’s release is an answer to prayer. Moore continued, “We pray that this crisis will remind us to continue to pray for those imprisoned by oppressive regimes around the world because of their religious faith.”

By / Apr 19

The case of an American pastor jailed in Turkey for more than 18 months on terrorism-related charges has finally gone to trial.

“I don’t accept any of the allegations,” Pastor Andrew Brunson told the judge on the first day of the trial. “I have never done anything against Turkey. On the contrary, I love Turkey. I have been praying for Turkey for 25 years.”

In October 2016, after more than 20 years of serving as an evangelical missionary in Turkey, Andrew Brunson was summoned to a local police station. He thought he was going to receive a long-awaited permanent residence card. But instead, Brunson was notified he was being deported because he was a “threat to national security.” He was held for 63 days while being denied access to an attorney—and even denied access to a Bible. Brunson was then taken to a counter-terrorism center in Izmir and then taken to court, where he was accused of having ties to an American-based cleric, Fetullah Gulen, who is being blamed for a coup attempt in July 2016.

According to Al-Monitor, when Brunson was asked during the trial about his alleged sympathies with Fetullah Gulen he responded, “This is an insult to my beliefs. I am a Christian. I do not belong to Islamic religious groups. Their aims are different to my aims. I have no connection with any [Gulen-associated] organization.”

The U.S. has a team in Turkey observing the trial, which includes North Carolina Sen. Thom Tillis and Sam Brownback, U.S. ambassador-at-large for religious freedoms.

“The [Trump] administration is deeply concerned about this case,” Brownback told the press outside the court. “You will continue to see very high-level U.S. government interest in this until he is released.”

The Turkish judge has adjourned the trial and sent Brunson back to prison until May 7.

According to the American Center for Law and Justice (ACLJ), an organization that is representing Brunson’s family, the Turkish court had the option to deport Brunson, release him with the condition that he sign-in with local authorities weekly, or imprison him. The judge decided to keep him in prison.

“The government of Turkey—led by an Islamic party—has begun increased crackdowns on Christians,” said Jordan Sekulow, executive director of the ACLJ, “and Pastor Andrew, if convicted, may face years in prison based on extremely serious—and false—charges. We are launching a global campaign to call attention to his plight demanding that Turkey— a NATO member—release Pastor Andrew without delay.” Several Christian organizations, including ERLC, have joined in this campaign. Seventy-eight members of Congress from the House and the Senate have also written a letter to Turkish President Erdoğan, asking for Brunson’s prompt release.

“Turkey has literally taken the position that Christianization is terrorism,” ACLJ Senior Counsel Cece Heil told CBN News. “They have no specific evidence that Pastor Brunson has committed any crime. The fact that he is a Christian, and specifically a Christian pastor, is what they are equating as terrorism.”

Brunson had been detained for more than 500 days when, this March, Turkish prosecutors issued an official indictment calling for him to receive life in prison. This latest outrage has been strongly condemned by the U.S. Commission on International Religious Freedom (USCIRF).

“USCIRF urges President Trump and others in the administration to redouble their ongoing efforts to secure Pastor Brunson’s release,” USCIRF Vice Chairs Sandra Jolley and Kristina Arriaga said. “No stone should be left unturned in our efforts on behalf of this unjustly imprisoned American. We call again for his immediate release and, if this is not forthcoming, for the administration and Congress to impose targeted sanctions against those involved in this miscarriage of justice.”

When President Trump and Vice-President Pence met with Erdoğan in Washington, D.C. last May, they reportedly raised Bruson’s situation multiple times with the Turkish president.

On Tuesday, President Trump tweeted, “Pastor Andrew Brunson, a fine gentleman and Christian leader in the United States, is on trial and being persecuted in Turkey for no reason. They call him a Spy, but I am more a Spy than he is. Hopefully he will be allowed to come home to his beautiful family where he belongs!”

By / May 18

A pastor and North Carolina native is being held in Turkey on unsubstantiated charges of terrorism related activity. Here are five facts about the case behind the social media campaign, #ForgottenAmericanInTurkey:

1. After more than 20 years of serving as an evangelical missionary in Turkey, Andrew Brunson, 48, thought he was being summoned to receive a long-awaited permanent residence card. Instead, Brunson was notified that he was being deported based on being a “threat to national security.” He was held for 63 days while being denied access to an attorney—and even denied access to a Bible. Brunson was then taken to a counter-terrorism center in Izmir and then taken to court, where he was accused of having ties to an American-based cleric, Fetullah Gulen, who is being blamed for a coup attempt in July 2016.

2. According to the American Center for Law and Justice (ACLJ), an organization that is representing Brunson’s family, the Turkish court had the option to deport Pastor Brunson, release him with the condition that he sign-in with local authorities weekly, or imprison him. The judge decided to keep him in prison.

4. “The government of Turkey—led by an Islamic party—has begun increased crackdowns on Christians,” said Jordan Sekulow, executive director of the ACLJ, “and Pastor Andrew, if convicted, may face years in prison based on extremely serious—and false—charges. We are launching a global campaign to call attention to his plight demanding that Turkey— a NATO member—release Pastor Andrew without delay.” Several Christian organizations, including ERLC, have joined in this campaign. 78 members of Congress from the House and the Senate have also written a letter to Turkish President Erdoğan, asking for Andrew's prompt release.

5. Last week, Sekulow met with President Trump to discuss Brunson’s situation and to urge the president to bring up the case when he meet with Turkish President Erdoğan. The White House confirmed Trump raised the subject of Brunson during his meeting on Wednesday with Erdoğan. “President Trump raised the incarceration of Pastor Andrew Brunson and asked that the Turkish Government expeditiously return him to the United States,” the White House said in a statement after the meeting.

5. There is a petition you can sign to protest Bunson’s imprisonment. When commenting on this situation on social media you can include the hashtags #freeAndrewBrunson, #SaveBrunson, or #ForgottenAmericanInTurkey.

By / Jul 22

Every Friday, we bring you the top five international stories of the week, with a particular emphasis on religious liberty, justice issues and geopolitical issues that impact liberty and justice.

1. Elements of Turkish military attempt to overthrow the government, failing within a few hours. Late last Friday night, a small group within the Turkish military closed several bridges in Istanbul and Ankara, closed the airport and conducted low flyovers over Istanbul and the nation’s capital. But a few hours later, President Erdogan, who was not in Turkey at the time, appeared via FaceTime on state media, calling on supporters to take to the streets. And they did, leading to a dramatic turn of events where civilians swarmed military positions, taking back control of the government. From start to finish, the entire episode lasted less than 24 hours, but the effects will likely linger for years.

2. Turkish government fires or suspends more than 50,000 state employees in wide-ranging investigation into the causes behind the attempted coup. From my piece at ERLC.com: “Whether what unfolds in the coming weeks can be characterized as an investigation or a purge will determine the validity of what Erdogan does to bring the military back under the control of the government. . . . But beyond these questions, the fundamental issue is what kind of Turkey will emerge from this conflict. Will freedom of expression be permitted back into Turkish society? Will religious and ethnic minorities like Alevi Muslims and Kurds be allowed to flourish? All of this remains to be seen. In the next few weeks, the future of a democratic and vibrant Turkey hangs in the balance.” Yesterday, Turkey declared a state of emergency, effectively suspending its human rights under international law.

3. Trump casts doubt on the future of NATO if he becomes President. Republican presidential nominee Donald Trump gave a wide-ranging interview to The New York Times. One of the topics of discussion from the interview was the future of NATO. From that interview: “Asked about Russia’s threatening activities, which have unnerved the small Baltic States that are among the more recent entrants into NATO, Mr. Trump said that if Russia attacked them, he would decide whether to come to their aid only after reviewing if those nations have ‘fulfilled their obligations to us.’”

4. Massive corruption case involving Malaysian sovereign wealth fund unfolds. The U.S. Department of Justice has accused individuals close to Malaysia’s prime minister of embezzling a staggering $3 billion from the fund. The assets seized include: “A $30.6 million penthouse at the Time Warner Center in Manhattan, overlooking Central Park. A $39 million mansion in the Los Angeles hills. A $17.5 million tear-down in Beverly Hills.”

5. In Egypt, protests grow over promised bill that would allow for church construction and renovation. When Egypt’s new constitution was ratified in 2013, the Parliament was required in its first term to pass a law reforming existing laws for church reconstruction. These existing laws, which date back to before the Mubarak era, required a Presidential decree for any construction or renovation at churches, including even minor bathroom renovations. Egypt’s eight million Christians have been waiting for the new law to pass for months, and the legislative process has been shrouded in secrecy.

Have suggestions for a top 5 article this week or think there’s an issue we should be covering? Email me at [email protected].

By / Jul 20

In crushing the coup, Erdogan passed the first test. The next test is whether he is able to lead Turkey through it and into a stable, thriving democracy.

As soon as the attempted coup started to fray in the early morning hours of last Saturday, commentators and analysts began to speculate that Erdogan would use the coup as a pretext to consolidate power in the office of the President and move his political rivals out of power. It appears exactly that may have unfolded over the last few days. These numbers are moving quickly, but as of this writing, over 30,000 people have been suspended from their jobs, and many of those have been arrested.

Some observers have been critical of the fact that there has been a purge at all, but this seems to be utopian thinking. Although the coup ultimately failed, consider what the coup plotters accomplished: All major bridges in Istanbul and Ankara were shut down, Ataturk Airport was forcibly closed, an unknown number of helicopters were commandeered and several F-16s went missing as well. Two of those F-16s locked their radars on President Erdogan’s plane as he was trying to make his way back to Istanbul. Thankfully, they didn’t fire.

The coup plotters did all of this without a single leak. This fact is stunning and has quite understandably shaken up President Erdogan’s sense of security. Indeed, this week, several close advisors to Erdogan have been detained under suspicions that they had information about the coup and failed to bring this information to light.

Whether what unfolds in the coming weeks can be characterized as an investigation or a purge will determine the validity of what Erdogan does to bring the military back under the control of the government. But a thorough investigation into who the coup plotters were and the extent of their plans is, depending on how the investigation is carried out, justified. Erdogan is a complicated American ally to be sure, but the fact is that he was democratically elected by his people.

The big questions moving forward is the extent to which due process will be extended to those suspected of taking part in the attempted coup and whether the attempted coup itself will be used as a pretext to suppress political rivals who had no hand in the incidents that unfolded last weekend.

One of the complexities of this situation is that we may never know what happened last Friday night. Conspiracy theories have proliferated throughout Turkey, a country prone to conspiracy theories. In the face of accusations of American involvement, Secretary of State John Kerry was required to issue a statement that there was no American involvement in the attempted coup. This will complicate the investigation and also provide a justification for Erdogan to isolate and suppress political rivals that had nothing to do with the process.

At the moment, the Erdogan administration has blamed the Gülen movement for the coup. The Gülen movement is an Islamic movement led by Fethullah Gülen, who lives in Pennsylvania. The movement is not well understood either inside or outside of Turkey. In the United States, the Gülenists operate a vast network of charter schools, and inside Turkey, Gülenists are deeply involved in education as well. This explains the suspension of over 20,000 teachers in Turkey and the demand for the resignation of every Turkish university dean.

Will due process be provided for these 20,000 teachers? Will they be reinstated if they are found to have had no involvement with the attempted coup?

Turkey has demanded the extradition of Fethullah Gülen to Turkey, and Secretary Kerry has indicated that he would consider a request provided that sufficient evidence is supplied by the Turkish authorities.

Turkey is a critical partner to the United States and NATO in the battle against Islamic extremism in the Middle East. Turkey is also playing a crucial role in stemming the tide of migration into the European Union. The attempted coup threatens both of these things.

But beyond these questions, the fundamental issue is what kind of Turkey will emerge from this conflict. Will freedom of expression be permitted back into Turkish society? Will religious and ethnic minorities like Alevi Muslims and Kurds be allowed to flourish? All of this remains to be seen. In the next few weeks, the future of a democratic and vibrant Turkey hangs in the balance.