In their first face-to-face meeting in several months, the European Union’s 27 foreign ministers discussed Turkey’s move on Hagia Sophia as one of the issues at the top of the agenda of their meeting. The EU foreign ministers were led by the EU foreign affairs chief, Josep Borrell.
The ministers unanimously condemned Ankara’s decision to convert such an emblematic monument as the Hagia Sophia into a mosque. They also condemned Turkey for illegal drilling in the Eastern Mediterranean.
“This decision will inevitably fuel the mistrust, promote renewed division between religious communities and undermine our efforts at dialog and cooperation,” said Borrell after the meeting of EU foreign ministers. “When I see now what is happening with Hagia Sophia, that is a blow,” Luxembourg Foreign Minister Jean Asselborn said.
The cathedral of Hagia Sophia was built in the 6th century, at the entrance to the Bosphorus Strait in Istanbul. It was converted into a mosque in the 15th century, and transformed into a museum in 1934 by a decision of the founder of secular Turkey, Mustafa Kemal Ataturk .
On Friday, the State Council, the Turkish highest administrative court, overturned the government’s 1934 decision. The country’s President, Recep Tayyip Erdogan, announced moments later the opening to Muslim prayers of the building, which was classified as World Heritage by UNESCO, and is one of the main tourist attraction sites in Istanbul.
Several other issues disturb the EU’s relationship with Turkey, such as the dispute with Greece and Cyprus, which accuse Turkey of prospecting for hydrocarbons in its territorial waters, or Ankara’s involvement in Libya and Syria.
Borrell visited Turkey last week and spoke of Ankara’s disputes with Greece and Cyprus over energy exploration in the eastern Mediterranean region. Turkey has been drilling gas in a territory that Cyprus insists it owns.
Cyprus considers Ankara’s actions as being contrary to international obligations, as well as international law, and said that Greece would consider possible “political, diplomatic and financial” sanctions.
Borrell said there were no immediate decisions at Monday’s meeting, but that the ministers would revisit the issue at their next meeting in Berlin in August.
In addition to Greece, whose foreign minister, Nikos Dendias, is asking for a list of new sanctions on Turkey, France is also very critical of Ankara, in light of the tension between the two countries over the conflict in Libya. This was aggravated by an incident between ships of the two countries in the Mediterranean in early June.
Yesterday, the head of the Catholic Church, Pope Francis, said that he was “pained” by Turkey’s move to convert Istanbul’s Hagia Sophia back into a mosque.
Speaking during a mass service in the Vatican, the pontiff stated thus: “My thoughts go to Istanbul. I think of Santa Sophia and I am very pained,” he said during his weekly blessing in St. Peter’s Square.