Turkey Awaits Court Ruling to Make Mosques of Aghia Sophia, Museums

Αssociated Press

FILE - In this Friday, March 24, 2017 file photo, people walk backdropped by the Byzantine-era Hagia Sophia. (AP Photo/Lefteris Pitarakis, file)

Turkey intends to go ahead with plans to turn museums – including the revered Aghia Sophia Church into mosques if the country's Council of State rules they could be turned into Muslim places of worship.

Citing Greek media reports, Turkey’s pro-government Yeni Safak newspaper said that a decision is expected on whether the Chora Museum, formerly the Byzantine Church of the Holy Savior, in the Edirnekapi neighborhood of Constantinople can be used as a mosque.

That would open the door for Aghia Sophia to also become a mosque as President Recep Tayyip Erdogan has long said he wanted although Greece built and paid for an official mosque for the Muslim community living near Athens.

Erdogan’s suggestion drew fire in Greece as the cathedral, originally built in the 6th Century, was the main seat of the Greek Orthodox Church before converted into a mosque after the Ottoman conquest of the city in 1453. T

urkey’s secular founder turned the structure into a museum in 1935 that attracts millions of tourists each year and is also a UNESCO World Heritage site.

In March, Erdogan said plans were underway to make alterations to the Church which is already 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 to facilitate entry to visitors.

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.”

“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,” Greece's then-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,” he added before his ruling Radical Left SYRIZA was ousted by New Democracy in July 7 snap elections.

“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 now being restored.