US Steps Up Support for Keeping Hagia Sophia's Status

Αssociated Press

A view of a wall set in front of Istanbul s 6th-century Hagia Sophia, the main cathedral of the Byzantine Empire which was converted into a mosque with the Ottoman conquest of the city, then known as Constantinople, in 1453, that was to be used as a set for the celebrations to mark the 567th anniversary of the conquest in Istanbul, Friday, May 29, 2020. (AP Photo/Emrah Gurel)

ATHENS -- After delicately suggesting that Turkey should not change the revered ancient Orthodox Church Hagia Sophia Church in Istanbul into a mosque, the US State Department reiterated that position, as did the city's Mayor,  Ekrem Imamoglu.

“Our position has not changed, we continue to view Hagia Sophia as a site of extraordinary significance and support its preservation in a manner that respects its complex multireligious history,” an unnamed US State Department official told Greek reporters in Washington, the state-run Athens-Macedonian News Agency said.

The statement came after a report indicating that Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan directed members of his cabinet to explore the possibility of turning Hagia Sophia from a museum into a mosque as he has long said he wants.

That happened a day after the publication of the State Department’s annual report on International Religious Freedom that criticized Erdogan’s government for continuing to “limit the rights of non-Muslim religious minorities.

It pointed to those not recognized under the government’s interpretation of the 1923 Lausanne Treaty – which Erdogan doesn't recognize - which includes only Armenian Apostolic Orthodox Christians, Jews and Greek Orthodox Christians.

“Senior US government officials continued to publicly, and privately with government officials, express their understanding of the Hagia Sophia as a site of extraordinary significance,” the report said.

They underscored the importance of the issue with government officials and emphasized that the Hagia Sophia is a symbol of peaceful coexistence, meaningful dialogue, and respect among religions,” the report added.

Erdogan and other high-ranking Turkish officials have repeatedly expressed the view that the 6th Century monument, currently a museum, must be converted to a mosque and directed a study on how to change the status.

The Byzantine-era Greek Patriarchal cathedral was turned into a mosque after Constantinople fell to Turkish invaders in 1453 and became a museum in 1935 but Erdogan is keen on making it a mosque again.

“Hagia Sophia can continue to be visited by tourists as a mosque, as is Sultanahmet (the Blue Mosque.) Our nation should decide on this,” Erdogan was quoted by Turkey’s Hurriyet telling officials of his AKP party’s central executive board.

“Do a study for Hagia Sophia, let’s evaluate and talk,” he reportedly told officials, warning them to “be very sensitive” about the issue without clarifying what that meant although his intentions are long well known.

On May 29, Imams recited verses of the Koran inside the cathedral to mark the anniversary of the conquest of the city. The UNESCO World Heritage site is one of the world's most popular tourist attractions, drawing about three million visitors annually.

Imamoglu, speaking to the online Delphi Economic Forum, said Hagia Sophia is being exploited for the sake of domestic politics in Turkey.

Athens mayor Kostas Bakoyannis underlined that the two cities both host world heritage monuments, such as Hagia Sophia, which must be protected, with Greece paying for the country's first official mosque in Athens.

During their discussion, both mayors agreed to cooperate and to meet over the coming period, either in Istanbul or in Athens, while they also referred to "city diplomacy", noting that this can often bridge divides and differences, 

Imamoglu said that issues like that of Hagia Sophia should be handled with sensitivity, taking into history and religion into consideration and that Turkey and the world have bigger problems to deal with as the COVID-19 Coronavirus pandemic continues.