ATHENS — Turkey’s plan to turn the ancient former Hagia Sophia Orthodox Church, now a museum, into a mosque is being done for political and not religious reasons, dozens of of Byzantine and Ottoman art and culture said in an open letter.
They wrote as the Turkish Council of State, the country’s highest administrative court, was reviewing the scheme by President Recep Tayyip Erdogan, a decision expected by July 15.
In the letter, the academics warn against the “careless treatment” of the city’s former Byzantine cathedral, saying that “historical and archaeological evidence could be damaged, and works of art concealed.”
“Hagia Sophia is too beautiful a monument and too precious a historical document to serve as a pawn in regional politics,” they said of the 6th Century structure in Constantinople, called Istanbul outside Greece, wrote Kathimerini.
“The central question is not, ‘Should Hagia Sophia be a museum or a mosque?” The central question is rather, “How can we best care for Hagia Sophia?’” they wrote, saying there’s a distinction between function and stewardship.
“We are concerned that the ongoing dispute over function hinders the development of a management strategy commensurate to the scale of the challenges: preservation of the historical fabric and continued visibility of the works of art of all periods, Byzantine and Ottoman; responsible management of mass tourism; and protection against the threat of earthquake.”
They noted that from 1453, when the city fell to the invading Ottomans and the church became a mosque before being converted to a museum in 1934 under the rule of Mustafa Kemal Ataturk, that it has been restored.
The church-museum is one of the city’s biggest tourist attractions, drawing as many as three million people a year but Ecumenical Patriarch Vartholomaios, the spiritual head of some 300 million Orthodox Christians worldwide and based in Constantinople where the Orthodox church stands, said making it a mosque would disappoint Christians and “fracture” East and West, setting up a potential clash of religions.
“The potential conversion of Hagia Sophia into a mosque will turn millions of Christians around the world against Islam,” Vartholomaios warned. “We hope that wisdom and reason ultimately prevail,” he added, the report said.
He called on Turks to support keeping the cathedral as a museum as it is now designated, saying it brings together people and cultures from all over the world, the site one of the most popular in the city, drawing about three millions tourists annually.
The academics added in their letter that, “The function of the building has expanded to include increasingly visible expressions of Muslim piety. Since 1991, there has been a room dedicated to Muslim prayer within the complex. “Since 2016, Hagia Sophia has been served by a full-time imam, the call to prayer has sounded from the minarets, and Qur’anic readings and prayers have taken place within, during the annual observation of Laylat al-Qadr,” they said.
“In a certain sense, Hagia Sophia is currently functioning as both a museum and a mosque. As far as we are aware, the expansion of this latter function has not resulted in damage to the building or obstruction of its works of art,” the letter also said.
The major opposition Radical Left SYRIZA’s Member of the European Parliament Dimitris Papadimoulis warned in a tweet that if Turkey makes the the conversion into a mosque it could end relations with Greece, saying the scheme would be in violation of international agreements and be tantamount to “a rape of history,” also said the paper's report.