Wednesday, June 20, 2012

What Price Freedom?

The Hagia Sophia--once a church, later
a mosque, now secularized and a museum
I recently was in Turkey.  I had been to Istanbul before but only briefly and was anxious to return and see it again and in more depth.  I didn’t think anything about this at the time, but while I saw women in a variety of dress from western fashions to the hijab to the burqa I never saw either an imam or a Christian (Catholic or Orthodox) priest.   When I returned home, a friend of mine who has ties to the Greek Orthodox patriarchate in Istanbul explained to me that other than the Greek Orthodox Patriarch, the Armenian Patriarch, and the Grand Mufti of Istanbul, all clerics of any religion may not wear ecclesial garb off the premises of their religious institutions.  Even archbishops and monastic abbots, while in public, must wear secular dress.   The Turks have no plans for a Fortnight for Freedom to protest this limitation on their religious freedom and it is far more restrictive than our alleged limitation in the United States to practice our Catholic faith fully and openly.        I told my friend that I saw this restriction on clerical apparel as an infringement of religious freedom, a persecution of the Church but he assured me that it was only part of the rigid secularization of Turkish society which is actually designed to protect religious minorities.  When the Ottoman Empire was dissolved after World War I, the new Turkish leader, Mustafa Kemal Ataturk, was insistent on secularization of the State.   Secularization in Turkey is extremely restrictive of religion in the public sphere.  Religions, whether Christian or Muslim, cannot run schools or universities other than those to train clergy.  Education is totally secular.  There are no religious emblems permitted in public.  While Islamic practice is on the rise in Turkey, so far this secularization policy has prevented the sort of disputes—often violent—that has set one Islamic sect against another.  It also has served to protect the Christian and Jewish minorities from persecution by the Muslim majority.
      Perhaps one of the strongest symbols of secularization in Turkey is the status of the Hagia Sophia.  Built as a Christian basilica by the Emperor Justinian in 562 (the third church of the name on the site), it was converted to a Mosque within days of the fall of Constantinople to the Turks in 1453. (Constantinople fell Sunday, May 29th and Mehmed II ordered the building to be readied for Friday Prayers by June 3rd.)   The building remained a mosque until 1931 when it was closed and then reopened as a museum—which it is today—in 1935.  Muslims want it to be returned to Muslim worship; Orthodox Christians want it returned to status as the patriarchal Church of the Greek Orthodox Patriarchs.  Its secular status pleases no one but tourists yet it is a symbol in an intolerant world of tolerance, albeit imposed tolerance. 
      I would hate to see religious tolerance imposed on our society by such rigid secularization, but religious groups, if they value their freedoms, need to remember that they cannot dictate policies that restrict the liberties of others.  Our society does not have an accord on such volatile subjects as abortion, same-sex unions, gay adoption, embryonic stem-cell research, artificial insemination, surrogate parenting, voluntary sterilization, end-of-life choices.  These are difficult choices and while religions have the right to educate those of the public who are willing to be educated, they should not expect to have their moral positions imposed—even by a political majority—upon those whose doctrinal and  moral beliefs are different.  If the citizenry cannot discipline themselves sufficiently to allow a moral consensus that transcends religious particularity to evolve then we may find ourselves in a situation like Turkey where restrictions will be placed on the public role of religion to protect the harmony of the larger society.   I would hate to see that; it would be disappointing to those of our national founders who ideally thought that such processes would work in rational and democratic ways without the necessity of banishing religion to the private sphere, but it is our choice.  Freedom does not come without responsibilities.  

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