Turkey Delays Decision on Hagia Sophia

  • The United States on Wednesday urged Turkey not to compromise the Hagia Sophia status.
  • Turkey's foreign minister said "no one has the right to express his opinion on our sovereign rights in the tone of warning."
  • The fate of Hagia Sophia is also of concern to neighboring Greece.

The Council of State in Turkey is considering a request by several organizations to convert the former Hagia Sophia Church into a new mosque. Anatolia News Agency reported that the decision may be made within the next 15 days at the latest. The issue has raised a great deal of concern from abroad.

Hagia Sophia (“Holy Wisdom”) is the former Greek Orthodox Christian patriarchal cathedral, later an Ottoman imperial mosque and now a museum (Ayasofya Müzesi) in Istanbul, Turkey. Nominally, use of the complex as a place of worship (mosque or church) is strictly prohibited.

The United States on Wednesday urged Turkey not to compromise the Hagia Sophia status. Secretary of State Mike Pompeo tweeted,

“We urge the Government of Turkey to continue to maintain the Hagia Sophia as a museum, as an exemplar of its commitment to respect Turkey’s diverse faith traditions and history, and to ensure it remains accessible to all.”

He added that the United States sees “any change in the situation . . . is a marginalization of the legacy of this wonderful landmark.”

For his part, Turkish Foreign Ministry spokesman Hamis Aksoy commented that his country “receives these statements with surprise,” adding that “everyone has the freedom to express his opinion. On the other hand, no one has the right to express his opinion on our sovereign rights in the tone of warning.”

For his part, the spiritual leader of the Orthodox Christians in the world warned last Tuesday that turning the church into a mosque again “will infuriate millions of Christians around the world.” The Ecumenical Patriarch Bartholomew leads the 300 million Orthodox Christians in the world based in Istanbul.

Mustafa Kemal Atatürk was a Turkish field marshal, revolutionary statesman, author, and the founder of the Republic of Turkey, serving as its first President from 1923 until his death in 1938. Ideologically a secularist and nationalist, his policies and theories became known as Kemalism.

The fate of Hagia Sophia is also of concern to neighboring Greece, especially those closely monitoring the Byzantine heritage in Turkey. Last year, the Council of State allowed the conversion of the Byzantine Chora Church in Istanbul to a mosque in a decision that some considered a test before deciding on the future of Hagia Sophia.

Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan has proposed a restoration of the building. Erdogan— nostalgic for the Ottoman Empire, and seeking to win the votes of conservatives amid an economic crisis caused by the COVID-19 epidemic— has repeatedly expressed support for the idea of ​​turning the site into a mosque.

Last year he described the conversion to a museum as a “fatal mistake.” Since Erdogan’s rise to power in 2003, activities related to Islam have increased within this site where he organizes workshops to recite the Qur’an or group prayers.

The Hagia Sofia was an architectural masterpiece that the Byzantines built in the sixth century and crowned their emperors. It has been included on the World Heritage List of the United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization (UNESCO), and is one of the most important tourist destinations in Istanbul.

After the capture of Constantinople by the Ottomans in 1453, it was converted into a mosque. Then, in 1935, by a decision of the the first President of the Turkish Republic, Mustafa Kemal Ataturk, the Hagia Sofia was turned into a museum. President Ataturk dedicated the building “to humanity.”

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Benedict Kasigara

I have been working as a freelance editor/writer since 2006. My specialist subject is film and television having worked for over 10 years from 2005 during which time I was the editor of the BFI Film and Television.

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