Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan has moved closer to make real his threat to turn the revered 6th Century Aghia Sophia Orthodox Church in Constantinople into a mosque and said plans are being made to make alterations.
The changes were reported in the Cypriot newspaper Phileleftheros but it wasn’t indicated whether there would be an attempt to make the church, now officially called a museum - to look like a mosque although it already is surrounded by minarets.
Speaking to Turkey’s state-run TRT, Erdogan was quoted by the paper as saying said that “serious architectural interventions must be made” to the entrance and floors of the 6th century Hagia Sophia, to facilitate entry to visitors.
He also said that it must be clarified whether the status of the monument will be that of a museum or a mosque – as it was from the fall of Constantinople to the Ottomans in 1453 until 1935.
The United States Commission on International Religious Freedom (USCIRF) condemned similar comments recharacterizing the monument as a mosque instead of a museum and any idea it could become a mosque riled the Greek government. In a TV interview ahead of Turkey’s March 31 local elections, Erdogan indicated that it was possible to “change its name from museum to Hagia Sophia Mosque,” an idea he has suggested before as he pushed Greece to give more rights to Turkish Muslims living in the northern part near the Turkish border.
There have been increasing calls for the government to convert the symbolic structure back into a mosque, in the wake of reports that the gunman who killed Muslim worshippers in New Zealand left a manifesto saying the Hagia Sophia should be “free of minarets.”
The cathedra was converted into a mosque after the Ottoman conquest of the city, then known as Constantinople, in 1453. Turkey’s secular founder turned the structure into a museum in 1935.
“It is not only a great temple of Christendom — the largest for many centuries — it also belongs to humanity. It has been recognized by UNESCO as part of our global cultural heritage,” Greek Foreign Minister George Katrougalos said.
“So any questioning of this status is not just an insult to the sentiments of Christians, it is an insult to the international community and international law.”
“We want to hope that the correct statements of March 16 by the Turkish leadership will be valid and there will be no change of this status,” he added, in reference to a speech by Erdogan when he ruled out its conversation into a mosque. He recited prayers inside the Aghia Sophia in 2018.
In 2018 there were 3.47 million visitors awed by its majestic interior making it Turkey’s top tourist attraction. When it was turned into a mosque in the 15th Century many of the mosaics were plastered over and nearly destroyed although they are being restored.