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Greek Elected Officials Call on U.S. Govt. to Rebuff Turkey’s Erdogan for Aghia Sophia Decision

Αssociated Press

People walk backdropped by the Byzantine-era Hagia Sophia, in the historic Sultanahmet district of Istanbul, Friday, July 24, 2020. (AP Photo/Yasin Akgul)

ASTORIA – New York City Greek-American elected officials are calling on the Trump administration to formally condemn Turkey’s President, Recep Erdogan, for his decision to close the historic Aghia Sophia as a museum. 

State Senators Michael Gianaris and Andrew Gounardes, Assembly Member Aravella Simotas, and Council Member Costa Constantinides sent a letter to President Trump last week, asking that he finally stand up to the Turkish strongman who’s long been accused of suppressing his own people’s civil rights. 

 “This newfound policy is a strong-armed blow to inclusivity and pluralism. We must stand together in holding agitators accountable and upholding democratic values,” the lawmakers wrote.

“As leaders of communities from New York City, a place you know well, we see firsthand how love of our neighbors holds us all together. When we cast aside this principle, we very quickly entreat into rivalries. The Aghia Sophia is an Earthly manifestation of neighborly love and the arc of history that points us to our shared values,” they continued.  

The 6th century Aghia Sophia has for the last 85 years served as a museum, in recognition both of its historic architecture as well as the fact that it has served as a house of worship for several different faiths over the last 1,500 years. UNESCO recognized the building’s history in 1985 when it designated Hagia Sophia a World Heritage site. 

UNESCO, the European Union, and a growing list of other global leaders condemned Erdogan’s reversal of a 1934 decree, in which the Turkish government converted Aghia Sophia from a mosque to a museum. The New York City lawmakers argue the designation long served as a common bond and understanding between the faiths that used this structure over more than a century. 

"In recognition of Turkey's pluralistic diversity, the Hagia Sophia has been for decades a public museum so that ALL can enjoy and celebrate its wondrous beauty and symbolic history,” said State Senator Andrew Gounardes. “The decision by Erdogan to erase this history - and in the process, erase nearly a century of Turkey's secular multiculturalism - is another in a long line of examples of state sanctioned intimidation and persecution against Turkey's minority religious communities. I join with New York elected officials of Greek Orthodox descent to say that this decision cannot stand." 

The text of the letter follows:

Dear President Trump,

Earlier this month, the Turkish government turned back the clock when it changed the status of the world-renown Hagia Sophia, from a museum to a house of worship. We write to express our deep lament and the urgency to unequivocally denounce this divisive decision. The United States is home to millions of Eastern Orthodox, who decry the Turkish government’s move and interpret it as an attempt to erase their history and religious observance. This is an issue, however, that spurs emotion beyond the Orthodox faithful. This newfound policy is a strong-armed blow to inclusivity and pluralism. We must stand together in holding agitators accountable and upholding democratic values.

The Hagia Sophia is far more than a relic of a bygone era and its significance transcends beyond brick and mortar. For nearly an entire millennium, it has stood as a testament of ingenuity and excellence, a marvel of architecture, and a symbolic meeting place between east and west. It has survived invasions, crusades, world wars, and revolutions. Greek Orthodox, Catholics, and Muslims have, at some point over the last 1,500 years, used Hagia Sophia as their house of worship. Where so many other historic structures have fallen, the Hagia Sophia has survived — no doubt a testament to mankind’s consensus that such works of art must survive.

Millions of visitors flock to the Hagia Sophia every year to experience this awe. To contemplate each and every human soul that has gone to the Hagia Sophia seeking a spiritual connection is humbling at its core. The United Nations Educational, Scientific, and Cultural Organization has long recognized this tradition and designated the Hagia Sophia a World Heritage site. Preserving the Hagia Sophia as a monument of such a storied legacy is incredibly important to the present moment, when intense divisions threaten the globe.

All humans instinctively cling to the notion that our existence is meaningful and our contributions to life on this Earth have an impact on future generations. Perhaps this is why historians generally subscribe to the idea that there is an arc to human history, that we are all actors in a larger story. Leaders and nations must rise to define what the story of the 21st Century will be. It cannot be mired in competition for space, significance, recognition, or resources. As leaders of communities from New York City, a place you know well, we see firsthand how love of our neighbors holds us all together. When we cast aside this principle, we very quickly entreat into rivalries. The Hagia Sophia is an Earthly manifestation of neighborly love and the arc of history that points us to our shared values.

While we write to you as Greek Orthodox who are particularly concerned, we hope that you too can appreciate the Hagia Sophia and protect what it symbolizes: exchange and spiritual connection.

Sincerely,

Costa Constantinides

New York City Council Member, 22nd District

Michael Gianaris

New York State Senator, 12th District

Andrew Gounardes

New York State Senator, 22nd District

Aravella Simotas

New York State Assembly Member, 36th District