Hagia Sophia mosque move draws Greek ire

Erdogan accused of double speak for framing different English and Arabic announcements

Hagia Sophia landmark
Hagia Sophia landmark

ATHENS/ISTANBUL — Greece intends to place sanctions against Turkey for its decision to revert Istanbul’s Hagia Sophia landmark into a mosque, Greek City Times reported on Saturday, as Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan’s move to hand administrative control of the Hagia Sophia to Turkey’s top state religious body on Friday evoked a firestorm of reaction.

Erdoğan handed over control to the religious body after the country’s highest administrative court annulled a 1934 decree that repurposed the disputed site from a mosque to a museum.

“Erdoğan made a historic mistake, a mistake that creates a gap, I hope it is not bridged,” the news site quoted Greek government spokesperson Stelios Petsas as saying. “Greece condemns this action and will do everything in its power to have consequences for Turkey.”

Petsas said “everything is on the table and the possibility of sanctions not only from Europe but also from international organizations, such as UNESCO”, without giving further details into the nature of the prospective sanctions over the UNESCO-protected World Heritage Site.

The Hagia Sophia, originally built as a cathedral of the Eastern Roman Empire in 537, was converted into a mosque following the Ottoman conquest of Istanbul on May 29,1453 and then into a museum in 1935, in the early years following the founding of Turkey’s republic.

“Anyone who violates international law must understand that for this delinquent behavior there are sanctions that hurt,” said Petsas. “The issue of Hagia Sophia is an international issue. The only sure thing is that such a delinquent behavior and such a great insult should have a similar response.”

Meanwhile, Media outlets reported that Turkey’s decision to turn Istanbul’s 6th century Hagia Sophia cathedral from a museum into a mosque has sparked controversy across the world including accusations that President Erdogan has framed the issue differently based on his audience.

The move has since sparked controversy, with a range of domestic and international voices criticizing Erdogan — but some voices from organizations affiliated with the president and his Muslim Brotherhood-affiliated allies supporting it.

Erdogan has come under fire for framing the conversion of the mosque differently in his English and Arabic announcements. The president’s office released two signed letters announcing the declaration, but observers were quick to note that the English content did not match up to the Arabic.

While the English was far more conciliatory and talked of the “shared heritage of humanity,” the Arabic content described the move as “fulfilling the promise of [Ottoman Sultan] Mehmed II” and said the “The revival of Hagia Sophia is a sign toward the return of freedom to al-Aqsa mosque,” the Islamic holy site in Jerusalem.

Erdogan himself has rejected criticism, insisting that Turkey has sovereignty over the Hagia Sophia. He has been accused of attacking longstanding traditions of secularism in Turkey.

Erdogan’s AKP party promotes an ideology that has been described as “Islamist,” and the president has sought close ties with the Muslim Brotherhood. Some analysts saw the conversion of the Hagia Sophia as a “crowning moment” in Erdogan’s much broader plans to revolutionize Turkey.

“Erdogan has been flooding Turkey’s public space, education policy and government with a brand of conservative Islam, and Hagia Sophia is the crowning moment of Erdogan’s religious revolution which has been unfolding in Turkey for over a decade,” Soner Cagaptay, Director of Turkish research program at Washington Institute for Near East Policy, told Reuters.

“Just as Ataturk nearly 100 years ago ‘unmosqued’ Hagia Sophia to underline commitment to his own secularist revolution, to take religion out of politics, Erdogan is now doing nearly the opposite. He is reconverting the building into a mosque to underline his own religious revolution,” he added.

“This regrettable move Mr President makes Istanbul poorer culturally. There are over 3,000 mosques in Istanbul. Hagia Sophia is much more than a physical building, it is a unifying symbol for various faiths,” tweeted the Emirati commentator Sultan Saoud Al-Qassemi.

Christian leaders also criticized the decision, with a senior Russian Orthodox official warning that it could lead to “greater divisions.”

“It is a real shame that the concerns of the Russian Orthodox Church and other Orthodox churches were not heard. This decision, alas, is not aimed at reconciling existing differences, but on the contrary, may lead to even greater divisions,” said Russian Orthodox Church official Vladimir Legoida to Reuters.

The Russian Orthodox Church has criticized Turkey's leaders for revoking the museum status of "one of the greatest Christian shrines," Istanbul's famous Hagia Sophia, accusing Ankara of playing politics, RT reported.

Founded by the Christian emperor Justinian, the Hagia Sofia was consecrated in the year 537, as a Byzantine cathedral. For almost a thousand years, it operated as a church — sometimes Orthodox, sometimes Catholic — before being converted into a mosque in 1453, following the Byzantine Empire's fall.

"It is a pity that political conditions prevail over respect for other religious traditions," said Metropolitan Hilarion of Volokolamsk, an Orthodox bishop and the chairman of the Department of External Church Relations in Russia.

"For Orthodox Christians, Hagia Sophia is the same as St. Peter's Basilica in Rome is for Catholics," he said, adding that the site is "one of the greatest Christian shrines."

The event has also seen an adverse reaction from Russian politicians, with Senator Konstantin Kosachev claiming that the conversion "will trigger an extremely negative response throughout the entire Christian world."

Kosachev, the chairman of the Foreign Affairs Committee at the Federation Council, said that Ankara will "be seen as a violator of religious balance" and "will lose its clout."

While the move has caused widespread outcry, President Erdogan did note that the mosque would remain open for local and foreign visitors, "Muslims and non-Muslims," he said.

The interim secretary general of the World Council of Churches has written to Turkey's president expressing his "grief and dismay'' over Turkey's decision to change the status of Istanbul's landmark Hagia Sophia from a museum to a mosque.

As a World Heritage museum, "Hagia Sophia has been a place of openness, encounter and inspiration for people from all nations,'' Ioan Sauca said in the letter released Saturday by the Geneva-based group.

French Foreign Minister Jean-Yves Le Drian also said France "deplores'' Turkey's decision on Hagia Sophia. "These decisions cast doubt on one of the most symbolic acts of modern and secular Turkey,'' the minister said in a statement.

"The integrity of this religious, architectural and historic jewel, a symbol of religious freedom, tolerance and diversity, listed as a UNESCO World Heritage Site, must be preserved," he said. "Hagia Sophia must continue to represent the plurality and diversity of religious heritage, dialogue and tolerance.''

Turkey’s Christian neighbors Cyprus also criticized the move. It is a historical appropriation and desecration of a World Heritage monument of particular value to the world’s Christians,” said Cypriot President Nicos Anastasiades.

“Hagia Sophia has been Turkish, a mosque and a world heritage since 1453. The decision to use it as a mosque, at the same time to be visited as a museum, is sound and it is pleasing,” the Prime Minister Ersin Tatar reportedly said. — Agencies