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Turkish officials offer reassurances over Hagia Sophia

24 July 2020


People gather to pray around Hagia Sophia in Istanbul, Turkey, before it opened for worship on Friday of last week

People gather to pray around Hagia Sophia in Istanbul, Turkey, before it opened for worship on Friday of last week

GOVERNMENT and religious leaders in Turkey have pledged to keep the ancient Hagia Sophia basilica open to visitors of all faiths, while ensuring minimal changes after it is turned into a mosque for the second time in its history (News, 17 July).

“Hagia Sophia is one of Istanbul’s oldest mosques and a symbol of the conquest heralded by the Prophet: the law requires it be restored for worship,” the Directorate of Religious Affairs (Diyanet) explained in a statement.

“Other than at prayer times, however, there is no religious obstacle to keeping the Hagia Sophia mosque, greatly valued as a cultural and historical heritage of humanity, open to visitors, if necessary measures are taken to ensure they respect mosque customs and act in line with its majesty as a temple.”

The assurance was offered as the Turkish President, Recep Tayyip Erdoğan, inspected conversion work at the landmark on Sunday, in preparation for its reopening.

It said that Christian mosaics in the sixth-century building — which attracted 3.7 million visitors annually before Covid-19 — would not “impede the health of prayers”, but would need screening or darkening during Muslim services.

Meanwhile, a state spokesman, Ibrahim Kalin, confirmed that Turkey would “invite everyone to the mosque”, including Pope Francis, who spoke last week of his “sadness” over the landmark’s change of status.

“The main point is that there’ll be no damage to the mosaics and other artworks, or to the building’s historic texture and architecture,” Mr Kalin told the Turkish Anadolu news agency.

“Reactions to Hagia Sophia’s conversion are based on old views and prejudices. Religious minorities have equal status here — and, if asked, they’ll say they enjoy the same religious freedoms as other communities.”

Church leaders abroad have continued to criticise the Muslim appropriation of Hagia Sophia, confirmed in a 10 July decree by President Erdoğan in apparent disregard of its status as a UNESCO World Heritage Site.

Founded as the world’s largest church by Emperor Justinian I in 537, the building was used as a mosque after the Ottoman capture of Constantinople in 1453, but turned into a museum in 1934 by the secularising founder of modern Turkey, Mustafa Atatürk.

In a letter last week to the EU’s High Representative for Foreign Affairs and Security Policy, Josep Borrell, the Geneva-based Conference of European Churches, whose 114 member-denominations include the Church of England, warned that its change to a mosque would “potentially create fertile ground for religious hatred and subsequent violence”.

Meanwhile, the Russian Orthodox Church said that the landmark had “paramount significance for all Christians”, and urged the global community to “help all it can to maintain Hagia Sophia’s special status”.

The Prime Minister of Greece, Kyriakos Mitsotakis, had called for sanctions at last weekend’s European Council summit in response to Turkey’s disregard for international agreements, in an appeal endorsed by the President of Cyprus, Nicos Anastasiades, Greek newspapers reported.

Speaking to journalists before visiting Hagia Sophia, however, President Erdoğan defended the mosque conversion as “fulfilment of a historic debt”, and said that he had “given the necessary answers” to critics.

Up to a thousand Muslims would be admitted to Friday’s inaugural prayers, he said, subject to coronavirus restrictions; and the national Science Board would decide on a safe limit for the Eid festival on 31 July.

Meanwhile, the Diyanet said that the reopening of Hagia Sophia as the Ayasofya-i Kebir Camii mosque had generated “enthusiastic excitement and joy” across Turkey and the “entire Islamic world”.

It continued: “The Islamic religion makes the material and spiritual development of mosques, and benevolence towards them, a duty for all Muslims. . . Aware that this is the house of God, all Muslims have a common obligation to revive this mosque, which our ancestors inherited, both materially and morally.”

The Turkish daily paper Cumhuriyet reported that more than 1500 Christian artworks would be removed from Hagia Sophia and lodged in a museum near by.

The Ecumenical Patriarchate, which is based in Istanbul and has previously complained of discrimination in Turkey — most of whose 84.3 million inhabitants are Sunni Muslims — has not publicly reacted since the landmark’s appropriation.

Read more on the story in Letters to the Editor this week

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