Renewed hints from Turkey that it would turn the revered Aghia Sophia Church – now a museum in Istanbul – into a mosque has provoked angry response from Greece, where the government is paying for the country’s first official mosque over stern opposition.
“The repeated statements from Turkish officials regarding the conversion of Byzantine Christian churches into mosques are an insult to the religious sensibilities of millions of Christians and are actions that are anachronistic and incomprehensible from a state that declares it wants to participate as a full member in the European Union, a fundamental principle of which is respect for religious freedom,” the Greek Foreign Ministry said in a statement.
“Byzantine Christian churches are an intrinsic element of world cultural and religious heritage, and they should receive the necessary respect and protection,” it said.
The statement came days after Deputy Prime Minister Bülent Arınç expressed his hope to see Hagia Sophia Museum be used as a mosque, already calling it the Aghia Sophia Mosque while speaking to reporters.
“We currently stand next to the Aghia Sophia Mosque […] we are looking at a sad Aghia Sophia, but hopefully we will see it smiling again soon,” Arınç said in a speech during the opening ceremony of a new Carpet Museum, located adjacent to the ancient Aghia Sophia complex.
The status of Aghia Sophia has come under increasing scrutiny in recent years, with a number of campaigns to open it for Muslim prayers being initiated, despite suggestions that this would be disrespectful to the building’s past as a church, the Turkish newspaper Hurriyet noted.
Earlier this year then Foreign Minister Dimitris Avramopoulos objected to the idea of Aghia Sophia, a huge tourist draw, becoming a mosque and overlooking its historic significance as one of the most important landmarks and a symbol of what Greece once held.
“This duty is urgent concerning monuments as Aghia Sophia of Istanbul, worldwide famous not only for its historical, cultural and architectural importance, but also as a symbol of the Orthodox Ecumenical tradition and the Byzantine spirit,” he said.
“If Aghia Sophia of Istanbul will be used in a way that is opposite to its historical and religious character, Greece will react both bilaterally and internationally,” he said.
Turkey has been taunting and teasing Greece as well over whether the Halki Seminary closed for more than four decades would be allowed to re-open even as Greece grants concessions to Turkey over a range of issues, including the construction of a mosque in Athens.
Aghia Sophia was taken over when Constantinople fell in 1453 and became a museum in 1935. Minarets were placed around the exterior to give it more of the appearance of a mosque.