EASTERN ORTHODOX leaders have urged the Turkish government to abandon plans to turn the ancient basilica Hagia Sophia, now a museum, in Istanbul, into a mosque, if approved by the country’s highest court in early July.
“This is a masterpiece of architectural genius, globally renowned as a pre-eminent Christian cultural monument whose value remains universal,” the Greek Orthodox Church’s Holy Synod said in a statement. “Any change will provoke strong protest and frustration among Christians worldwide, as well as harming Turkey itself.”
The Synod was reacting to calls by the President, Recep Tayyip Erdoğan, and senior government officials, to change the landmark’s status. Meanwhile, a senior Russian Orthodox official also spoke out against the move, and called on Turkey to maintain “open access to everyone”.
“For millions of Christians around the world, especially Orthodox Christians, this temple is a symbol of Byzantium and Orthodoxy,” the Russian Church’s foreign- relations director, Metropolitan Hilarion Alfeyev, told Rossija-24 TV.
“Any attempt to change the current status of Hagia Sophia will violate a fragile interfaith and interreligious balance.”
The basilica, founded by Emperor Justinian (527-565), became the world’s largest at its dedication in 537, but was used as a mosque after the Ottoman capture of Constantinople in 1453, and was turned into a museum in 1935 by the secularising founder of modern Turkey, Mustafa Kemal Ataturk.
Last month, President Erdoğan confirmed that he hoped to annul Ataturk’s decree and reopen Hagia Sophia for Muslim worship. On Monday, the Justice Minister for Turkey, Abdulhamit Gül, told the news agency Anadolu that he was ashamed that the building remained “the only mosque accessible through a turnstile”, and said that its future was “a matter of sovereignty’’.
The daily newspaper Cumhuriyet, however, last week accused President Erdoğan’s government of using the projected conversion, which has also drawn protests from some Muslim religious leaders, to divert public attention from economic hardships in the wake of the Covid-19 pandemic.
Christian minorities have long complained of discrimination in Turkey, most of whose 77 million inhabitants are Sunni Muslims. The foundation stone for a Syrian Orthodox church, the first new Christian building since 1923, was laid a year ago by President Erdoğan, whose government has also pledged to return confiscated assets to non-Muslim communities.
The Ecumenical Patriarchate, which is based in Istanbul, still awaits the long-promised return of a seminary complex at Heybeliada, forcibly closed in 1971, where plans for a 200-acre Islamic Education Centre were announced two years ago.
In a message posted on Twitter last week, the Armenian Orthodox Patriarch in Turkey, Sahak Masalyan, proposed permitting both Muslims and Christians to pray in Hagia Sophia, which currently attracts 3.3 million visitors annually, as a “more appropriate solution” than the “current flow of onlookers and tourists”.
UNESCO, which declared the basilica a World Heritage Site in 1985, cautioned last week that any change in its status, if approved by the Turkish State Council judges on 2 July, would require international consultation.