A delegation of the Interparliamentary Assembly on Orthodoxy (IAO) visited the United States of America (USA) from October 8 to October 15, 2023, on the occasion of the presentation of the Volume ‘Hagia Sophia: The Churches of the Wisdom of God Around the World.’ The delegation was headed by the IAO Secretary General, Dr. Maximos Charakopoulos, with the participation of Members of Parliaments ie. Ioan Vulpescu from Romania, Panikos Leonidou from Cyprus, and Radomir Tcholakov from Bulgaria, as well as the IAO Advisor Dr. Kostas Mygdalis.
The presentation of the Volume on the Churches dedicated to the Wisdom of God took place at the Museum of the Bible in Washington DC on October 11.
The IAO Secretary General, in his speech, emphasized that ‘Our initiative to publish the Volume in 15 languages and present it worldwide is part of the international information campaign we have undertaken as a response to the unacceptable decision of the Turkish leadership to convert the Hagia Sophia in Istanbul (Constantinople) into a mosque. This was an act that falls within the instrumentalization of religion and the attempt to create new state revisionist ideologies, and therefore, it is dangerous for peace and stability in the region.’
He concluded by stressing that, ‘it is the duty of all of us to protect this unique monument of incomparable magnificence and spirituality. To achieve this, we all need to coordinate our efforts so that decision-making centers pressure the Turkish leadership to revert the monument’s status to a museum, with strict security specifications, making it accessible to every citizen of the world, regardless of their religion.’
Speakers on the impressive Volume were Jeff Kloha, Chief Curatorial Officer of the Museum of the Bible, Rabbi Dr. Ari Lamm, Dr. John Yieh, Professor of Virginia Theological Seminary, Dr. John Fotopoulos, Associate Professor of Religious Studies and Theology at St. Mary’s College, while Dr. Kostas Mygdalis, IAO Advisor, informed the audience on the IAO activities and goals. Elizabeth Prodromou, Professor at Tufts University in Boston, moderated the event.
Following the presentation of the Volume, there was a guided tour of the magnificent photo exhibition featuring the Churches of Hagia Sophia around the world, by Jeff Kloha.It should be noted that the exhibition will be available until January 21, 2024.
The event was attended by prominent figures, among which were representatives of diplomatic missions of IAO Member States, the American Hellenic Educational Progressive Association (AHEPA), Archons of the Order of St. Andrew of the Ecumenical Patriarchate, Mr John Sarbanes, Member of the United States House of Representatives and the American Hellenic Institute (AHI).
Meetings at the State Department
On the occasion of the presentation of the Volume on Hagia Sophia Churches in Washington DC, the IAO delegation held meetings with officials from the State Department.
A meeting was held with the Executive Director of the U.S. Commission on International Religious Freedom, Ms. Erin D. Singshinsuk, and the Head of Public Affairs at the State Department, Ms. Danielle Saroyan Ashbahian. This commission drafts the annual report on violations of religious freedoms worldwide.
The IAO delegation had the opportunity to meet with the Director of the International Religious Freedom Office at the State Department, Mr. Daniel L. Nadel. The political advisor of the office, Ms. Sonia Fernandes, was also present at the meeting.
During these meetings, among other things, the head of the IAO delegation emphasized, “The conversion of Hagia Sophia into a mosque is an act that fosters religious extremism, at a time when we need, more than ever, initiatives for mutual understanding among people of different faiths and respect for their cultural heritage, which has been decisively shaped by religion.”Additionally, the IAO Secretary General stressed to the American officials about the risk that the monument faces and the message conveyed by the Turkish leadership through the conversion of the symbol of the Ecumenical Orthodoxy into a mosque, noting, “Hagia Sophia is not just a matter of concern for the 300 million Christian Orthodoxs and the broader Christian world. It is a matter that concerns every civilized person.”
Moreover, the IAO Secretary General made a series of proposals to the State Department:
a) The appointment of a special U.S. envoy for the protection of endangered Christians in the Middle East and the respect for religious freedoms in Turkey.
b) The inclusion of Turkey in the list of countries under supervision for viloations on religious freedom.
c) The more active involvement of UNESCO, once the U.S. has rejoined the international organization, on the protection of Hagia Sophia as it’s a recognized monument of world cultural heritage.”
Meetings in New York
The delegation members also visited New York for meetings with officials from the United Nations (UN) and other organizations.
A significant meeting took place with the Director of the United Nations Alliance of Civilizations (UNAOC), Ms. Nihal Saad. UNAOC is an international initiative of the United Nations that aims to contribute to the resolution of cultural and religious differences between the West and the Muslim world. It seeks to strengthen international efforts against extremism through the promotion of international intercultural and interfaith dialogue.
During the meeting, the head of the interparliamentary organization outlined the statutory goals and recent initiatives of the IAO, noting, among other things, that “the protection of cultural monuments, especially religious ones, is a duty of humanity not only with regard to history but primarily for its future. Their desecration, change of use, and, of course, destruction are practices that are condemnable, require global coordination and actual conviction so they are stopped. Unfortunately, besides Turkey – with the most characteristic example of Hagia Sophia in Istanbul (Constantinople) – Christian cultural and religious heritage is at risk in other places, such as Kosovo, occupied territories in Cyprus, Nagorno-Karabakh, and, of course, the Middle East.” The international UN official agreed on the importance of promoting intercultural and interfaith dialogue as tools for peace and invited the leadership of the IAO to participate in an upcoming international conference on the protection of the authenticity of religious sites.
Furthermore, the IAO delegation had the opportunity to meet with Mr. Andreas Veniopoulos, Vice President of the Orthodox Public Affairs Committee (OPAC), an organization with which the IAO collaborates in the framework of the protection of Christians in the Middle East.
Before departing the United States, the IAO delegation attended the Greek Orthodox Church of Saint Nicholas in New York, which was rebuilt and operated 21 years after the destruction caused by the terrorist attack on September 11, 2001.