His Eminence Archbishop Elpidophoros BBC Interview Transcription
INTRODUCTION OF PROGRAM
Huge crowds attend the first Friday prayers at Istanbul’s Agia Sophia Mosque for more than 80 years, but one Greek Orthodox Archbishop weeps, “This day is for us a mourning day. Its the day we grieve this decision of the Turkish government.” (00:53)
Now two weeks ago the Turkish President, Recep Tayyip Erdoğan, celebrated a legal decision which annulled the status of Istanbul’s Agia Sophia as a museum, allowing it to revert to becoming a mosque. Before it was a mosque it was, of course, a great Byzantine Cathedral. And today the President led Muslims to pray inside Agia Sophia responding to the first call to prayer there in 86 years. …PRAYERS…
Thousands of people gathered in the city’s Fatih district, witnesses to a reversal in the building’s status, which has been greeted with dismay by many in the international community, including the US Secretary of State Mike Pompeo, Pope Francis and several Orthodox Church leaders around the world. Among them Archbishop Elpidophoros, head of the Greek Orthodox Church of America. We were hoping to speak to him live but he will be leading a special service of prayers as he told me earlier.
(32:09) “This day is for us a mourning day. It’s the day we grieve this decision of the Turkish government to reconvert a monument, which is so important for the whole world. This is such a painful situation for us that we announced this day as a day for mourning. It’s like Good Friday for all Christians.”
Clearly a very difficult day for you, that you are marking with prayers and it does sound as though there is sorrow in your voice over this decision, I wonder though if you would accept, or at least acknowledge, that President Erdoğan has pledged that he will keep Agia Sophia open for all faiths to visit and also that the Christian symbols inside will be veiled only during Muslim prayers. Does that feel to you as though that’s enough?
(33:13) “ We had never a problem to access any mosque in Turkey so I don’t understand why is this is a gesture of goodwill. It’s not a special situation. It’s not a special gesture. It’s everyday business. It’s what’s happening all over the world. But, at the same time, it will be a privilege of a Muslim to have access in that monument, access of worship which is now deprived for the rest of the citizens who are not Muslims in Turkey.”
I wonder if you would agree with the Prime Minister of Greece, Prime Minister Mitsotakis, who talked about sorrow, of course, to millions of Greek Orthodox Christians. He conveyed his sorrow but he also said that the changing of the status was not a show of power on the part of President Erdoğan, but evidence of weakness. I wonder if you agree with that perception.
(34:10) “I don’t know if it is a sign of weakness, but I can say that it was not a wise decision. It was imposed mainly, if I can understand it correctly, by the difficult political and geostrategic situation where Turkey is right now and maybe from the financial serious difficulties that Turkey faces, but there are certain monuments and ideas who are vested with such deep history, and meaning, and respect from the ages that we cannot touch them and its dangerous to play with these things.”
Beyond this being a day of mourning and sorrow for you I wonder as a Christian, as a Christian leader, you will now be campaigning for Agia Sophia to be returned to becoming a museum?
“Certainly I can tell you that we will never stop. It’s a beginning for us. We will start a campaign. I already, yesterday, had the opportunity to express the concerns of all Orthodox Christians in the United States to the President, Trump, who received me in the White House, and to the Vice President, Mr. Pence.”
Archbishop, the President of the United States and the Vice President led you to believe that they fully support your campaign?
“This is my impression. They clearly stated to me that they are very much sorry for this decision that Turkey has made and that they will support the minorities in Turkey and particularly our Ecumenical Patriarchate, the head of the Orthodox Church in Istanbul.”
That was Archbishop Elpidophoros who is the head of the Greek Orthodox Church of America. (36:13)
Listen to interview: https://www.bbc.co.uk/sounds/play/m000l2cw