CONSTANTINOPLE – In an apparent bow to Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan after urging him not to change the ancient church of Aghia Sophia in Constantinople into a mosque, US Ambassador David Satterfield went there to visit.
According to Turkish media, he was accompanied by Coskun Yilmaz, the top tourism and cultural official in a city the rest of the world apart from Greece calls Istanbul, with Constantinople having fallen to Turkish invaders in 1453.
The visit to the newly named Aghia Sophia Grand Mosque came five days after hundreds of worshipers on July 24 attended the first Muslim prayers in 86 years inside the UNESCO World Heritage monument, led by Erdogan, who dismissed fierce international criticism of his move.
Erdogan is said to have the ear of US President Donald Trump doing repeated favors for him, concerning officials in Greece and the Diaspora as to where the American leader's allegiance lies.
While Russia also said it wanted a “balanced decision” before the conversion happened, Moscow then supported the change but now is assisting its ally Syria, where there ae plans to build a miniature replica of the Aghia Sophia.
The Syrian regime under President Bashar Al-Assad, who – with Russian help – has crushed rebels during a long-running bloody civil war – said the church will be built in the central province of Hama to show “peaceful dialogue” between major faiths.
The Lebanon-based news outlet Al-Modon said the idea came from a man named Nabeul Al-Abdullah, the head of a pro-regime loyalist militia within the province.
After gaining the approval of the metropolitan bishop of the Greek Orthodox church in Hama, Nicolos Baalbaki, the plans were presented to the Russian military in Syria.
The replica is to be built specifically in the Greek Orthodox-majority city of Al-Suqaylabiyah, on a piece of land donated by militia leader Al-Abdullah; a Russian team within Latakia’s Hmeimim military base is reportedly already working on plans for the construction, Middle East Monitor reported.
According to the Arabic-language newspaper Rai Al-Youm, Russian lawmaker Vitaly Milonov stated that Syria is the ideal location for the mini Hagia Sophia replica because “unlike Turkey, it is a country that clearly shows the possibility of peaceful and positive interfaith dialogue.”