ANKARA — Despite calls from Greece and the United States not to change the status of the revered ancient Greek Orthodox Aghia Sophia Church that is now designated a museum, Turkey’s ruling party wants it turned into a mosque.
The idea was pushed by President Recep Tayyip Erdogan and his Justice and Development Party (AKP) claimed Turks, including rivals, agree with that plan in the face of the opposition to keep it as it is.
AKP said that a survey it conducted found that 90 percent of AKP and nationalist MHP voters, 70 percent of right-wing IYI Party voters and 40 percent of the Kemalist main opposition Republican People’s Party (CHP) voters want to turn the museum and UNESCO world heritage site into a mosque, said Kathimerini.
Turkey’s Council of State is expected to issue its ruling on July 2 with Greece’s ruling New Democracy watching developments over the church in Constantinople, which the rest of the world calls Istanbul.
Built in the 6th Century as a church, the building was converted into a mosque after the fall of Constantinople in 1453 to the Ottoman Turks. In 1923, Mustafa Kemal Ataturk turned it into a museum.
Erdogan told government officials to study how to change the status. “Aghia 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 Aghia 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 have long been well known.
On May 29, Imams recited verses of the Koran inside the cathedral to mark the anniversary of the conquest of the city. Aghia Sophia is one of the world's most popular tourist attractions, drawing about three million visitors annually.