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Hagia Sophia’s Importance in Greek-Turkish Relations

The National Herald

Turkey's President Recep Tayyip Erdogan, centre, attends an arts biennial opening inside the Byzantine-era Hagia Sophia, an UNESCO world heritage site and one of Constantinople's main tourist attractions, in the historic Sultanahmet district of Constantinople, Saturday, March 31, 2018. (Kayhan Ozer/Pool Photo via AP)

It seems as if a day cannot go by without some kind of provocation by Turkish President RecepTayyip Erdogan at the expense of Hellenism. And, unfortunately, there is no doubt that he is doing it on purpose.

Deliberately cutting one after another the bridges of cooperation and understanding with Greece that have existed for decades, as if to psychologically lay the groundwork for something…

Erdogan certainly knows the great sensitivity of the Greeks, and Christians in general, to Hagia Sophia. And he also knows that Modern Turkey’s founder, Kemal Ataturk, turned Hagia Sophia from a mosque into a museum in 1935, making it an interfaith space, sacred and accessible to everyone. On March 31, Erdogan visited a cultural exhibition at Hagia Sophia and asked attendees to recite the first paragraph of the Koran and dedicated the prayer “to the souls of all those who left us this work as an inheritance, and especially to the conqueror of Constantinople.”

At the same time, the Turkish Foreign Ministry made it clear that the rocky island of Imia is Turkish, and its prime minister reminded us of what happened on September 9, 1922. That’s totally unacceptable. The course of Greek-Turkish relations, for those who have a trace of realism, is clear. Let us not be fooled.

For us Greeks, very few things have the historical and emotional significance of Hagia Sophia. And you do not have to be one of those who believe that “again, in years and seasons to come, they will be ours again.”

Hagia Sophia holds a special place in the Greeks’ conscience and national essence. Both Ataturk and Venizelos knew that good-neighborly relations between the two countries presupposed avoiding provocations concerning those sensitive feelings.

The violation of this informal agreement attacks one of the pillars on which Greek-Turkish relations are based, at a critical level for both nations. It violates the feelings of trust and respect that have been maintained, despite the occasional tensions. It places the relations of the two countries in an unpredictable state.

And that makes the risk of ignition even greater.