Nearly 57 percent of the voters in Switzerland voted to ban the building of Minarets in this picturesque country opening a door for a Europe-wide debate on the issue of religious dialogue throughout the old continent and the Middle East. This was a nationwide referendum, which was supported by Switzerland's right-wing Swiss People's Party (SVP). The Swiss People's Party is widely associated with anti-immigration campaigns.
Observers report that the Swiss Minaret vote indicates the rise and strength of far-right groups in Switzerland. However, others observe that this vote may the first indication of how the Europeans may feel about the limits that the Christians and Christian churches have to face in number of Muslim Countries. The development is indeed very worrying and calls for removing all the barriers around the world for the freedom of religious worship.
Switzerland has nearly 7.5 million population. The Muslism comprise the small 5 percent of the population with 400,000. They are the second minority next to the Roman Catholic. The country has 150 Mosques where the Muslims worship and only 4 of them have Minarets. Most of the Muslims are from Turkey.
Turkey, on the other hand is one of those countries where the opposite problem exists. While most Muslim countries and many Christians strongly criticized the Swiss Minaret vote, no one in the Muslim world or even in Europe seems to really care about the situation of the Christian churches and seminaries for preparation of schools in Turkey.
Churches Turned Into Museums in Turkey
While many Christian churches operate in Turkey number of others are closed or turned into museums. Halki Seminary, the main school of theology of the Eastern Orthodox Church's Ecumenical Patriarchate of Constantinople, was closed in 1971 and not opened to this date.
The most beautiful church of the Orthodox Christianity, the cathedral of Hagia Sophia was turned into a mosque, and now a museum in Istanbul. Hagia Sophia was converted into a museum in 1935 by the Republic of Turkey. One begs the question, "Why not turn it back to a church and give it back to the rightful owner, which is the Greek Orthodox Patriarchate in Turkey." In fact, this church is so beautiful and awe inspiriting that it served as a model for many Muslim mosques, like Sultan Ahmed in Istanbul.
Consider the St. Sophia Museum, which was built in covered Greek cross architecture during the reign of King Manuel I Kommenos in 13th century. Today, St. Sophia church is converted into a museum and is located in 3 kilometers west of Trabzon. The "conversion" of this church into a museum took place in 1964.
To the credit of the current Turkish government it should be noted that some churches, such as the Armenian church in Aghtamar Island in the Eastern Turkey are restored. However, they are not houses of worship yet.
How different is the Swiss Minaret ban from Turkey's restoring the Armenian Church Aghtamar, turning it into a museum and not yet allowing to put a cross on the top of the church building? Turkey completed the controversial restoration of Aghtamar Armenian Church in 2006. Armenian religious leaders invited to attend the opening ceremony opted to boycott the event, because the church was being reopened as a secular museum.
As to the Armenians living in Cyprus, the condition of their religious and cultural properties is a repeated tragedy of living under the condition of systematic violations of their rights, reminding them of the horrors of genocide during the period of the Ottoman Empire at the end of the 19th and the beginning of the 20th century. The survivors of this first genocide found refuge on the island with the hope of rebuilding their homes and churches. Today, the Armenians who have been forcibly expelled from the occupied part of the island are totally deprived of their cultural and religious rights while their churches and monasteries have been purposely damaged. An example is the fate of St. Makar Monastery in, which is located in the Turkish occupied part of Cyprus. This ancient and important religious site of the local Armenian community has been extensively looted and offered for leasing as a hotel". Armenian community in the Greek part of the island enjoys extensive religious and cultural freedoms.
Religious freedom and the freedom of worship is dear to every human being in the world. The Swiss Minaret issue is indeed worrying, but equally worrying is the condition of the Christian minorities in Turkey and in the Middle East.
Now is the time for the secular and religious leaders of Europe and the Middle East to sit down and resolve the issues of the freedom of worship in the entire continent. Now is also the time for Turkey to reevaluate its museum policies ahead of the country's EU aspirations.
If there had not been so much limitation on the Christian minorities and their properties in Turkey and the Middle East (in some Arab countries Christians have broad religious freedom) perhaps the voters in Switzerland would have thought differently about the Minarets. Perhaps the issue wouldn't even come up.
Written by Armen Hareyan