03 November 2005

Letting go of the past

The following is my column for the 24 October issue of Christian Courier:

A few weeks ago I became aware of a campaign to have the fabled Aghia Sophia, the Church of the Holy Wisdom, in Istanbul returned to the Ecumenical Patriarch of Constantinople. HagiaSophiaBlog.com is trying to collect at least one million signatures on a petition to convince the European Union (EU) to make return of this architectural wonder a condition for Turkey’s membership in that organization.

As a Christian with Orthodox roots on the paternal side, I must admit that this initially struck a chord with me. The Patriarchate has never relinquished its claim on the building, which the Ottoman Turks turned into a mosque after they conquered the city in 1453. As recently as the end of the Great War, many Greeks hoped that the defeat of the Ottoman Empire and the occupation of Constantinople by the victorious allies would lead to the Divine Liturgy once again being celebrated beneath the dome of the church built by the Emperor Justinian in 537.

Indeed, Aghia Sophia contains some of the most beautiful mosaics in the world, including this haunting icon of Christ (see the third image in the sidebar under "Web pages"), thought to have been fashioned shortly after the Byzantine Greeks recovered Constantinople from the Crusaders in 1261. These were covered over by the Muslims after the conquest, but in the early 1930s, shortly after the secularizing government of Mustafa Kemal had made the historic building into a museum, restoration of the mosaics was permitted. It continues as a museum to this day, despite the competing claims of two religious communities.

When I learned of the petition for its return, my first inclination was to sign. After all, the seizure of this historic place of worship was an obvious injustice. Shouldn’t it be rectified after all these centuries?

The answer to this question is not as obvious as some might think. If we say yes, we risk opening a pandora’s box in which long dormant injustices come pouring out, awaiting a resolution that may be impossible to achieve without unleashing further injustice. Should the two American continents be returned to the aboriginal peoples? If so, what do we do with the scores of millions of people of nonaboriginal descent? Should Israel be returned to the Palestinians, who were displaced from their homes nearly 60 years ago? If so, what do we do with the sabras, the generations of Israelis who were born there and know no other home?

In common law jurisdictions there is a concept known as the statute of limitations, which imposes time limits on the opportunity for injured parties to redress grievances. Why? Because in its absence injustices would continue to multiply until they overwhelmed the mundane concerns of ordinary people, who would be unable to get on with their lives because they were so consumed with the desire to right the wrongs of an increasingly remote past. Eventually, their descendants would be stewing over crimes committed against forebears generations earlier, thereby poisoning lives that might be better lived if they could manage – as the cliché puts it – to forgive and forget.

It is precisely in those parts of the world where people have allowed the wounds of the past to fester that establishing and maintaining political community is such a precarious venture. The Middle East, the Caucasus and the Balkans come immediately to mind.

Aghia Sophia is unlikely to be returned to the Orthodox Church and will almost certainly remain a museum. However, there is ample reason for the EU to raise the issue of Turkey’s current treatment of its religious minorities, including the Patriarchate, while letting the past be the past.

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