UNESCO sent letter to Turkey regarding turning Hagia Sophia into a mosque

Jun 26, 2020

Ernesto Ottone Ramírez, Assistant Director-General for Culture said that UNESCO sent a letter to the Turkish authorities at the beginning of June regarding Erdogan’s announcement to convert Hagia Sophia into a mosque.

The UNESCO Executive made the comments during an interview with Greek newspaper Ta NEA, where he added that they have not yet received a reply.

He stressed that the Convention on World Cultural Heritage stipulates that before any decision can be taken to change the status of a Cultural Heritage Monument, such as Hagia Sophia, a decision of the relevant UNESCO Intergovernmental Committee is required.

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Meanwhile, Greek Culture Minister Lina Mendoni on Thursday sent a letter to representatives of all the member-states of the United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization (UNESCO), informing them of Ankara’s plans to turn the monument into a mosque even though it has been a museum since the 1930s.

“Hagia Sophia must not be allowed to be divested of its universal character and turned into a Muslim place of worship,” Mendoni said in the letter.

“What the Turkish government and President [Recep Tayyip] Erdogan are attempting to do today revives and reignites fanatical nationalist and religious sentiment. It is an attempt to reduce the monument’s value and international radiance,” warned Mendoni, accusing the Turkish government of exploiting the site for political expediency and of ushering 15th century conditions into the 21st.

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Mendoni added that reconverting Hagia Sophia into a mosque would also require the approval of UNESCO, which listed the site as a monument of world heritage in 1985.

Turkey, she said, signed the UNESCO Convention in 1972 and would be in violation of the agreement by making such a move without approval.

United States Ambassador at Large for International Religious Freedom Sam Brownback also urged Turkey to abandon plans to reconvert the 6th century monument of Hagia Sophia into a mosque.

“The Hagia Sophia holds enormous spiritual & cultural significance to billions of believers of different faiths around the world,” Brownback tweeted on Thursday.

“We call on the Govt of Turkey to maintain it as a UNESCO World Heritage site & to maintain accessibility to all in its current status as a museum,” he added.

Two days ago, His All Holiness Ecumenical Patriarch Bartholomew, the spiritual leader of 300 million Orthodox Christians worldwide, expressed grief over plans by Turkey to convert the 6th-century former Orthodox Christian cathedral of Hagia Sophia into a mosque.

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“What can I say as a Christian clergyman and the Greek patriarch in Istanbul? Instead of uniting, a 1,500-year-old heritage is dividing us. I am saddened and shaken,” said the Ecumenical Patriarch during an interview with the Washington Post.

He stressed that in Istanbul “we have survived for 17 centuries and we will stay here forever, as God wills.”

The UNESCO World Heritage Site was built in 537 but turned into a mosque following the Ottoman capture of Constantinople May 29, 1453. It was then turned into a museum in 1935 shortly after the collapse of the Ottoman Empire and the establishment of Turkish Republic.

It is recalled that earlier this year, excerpts from the Qur’an were recited inside Hagia Sophia to commemorate the Fall of Constantinople. The Greek Foreign Ministry commented on this provocative action, saying that the “reading of excerpts from the Qur’an inside Hagia Sophia, a UNESCO World Heritage Site as part of the World Cultural Heritage Site, and that has been a museum since 1935, is an unacceptable attempt to alter its monumental character and provoke a response to their religious sentiment.”

“This action offends the international community and re-exposes Turkey, which must respect both the Convention Concerning the Protection of the World Cultural and Natural Heritage and UNESCO, of which it is a member,” the statement continued.

“We call once again on Turkey to respect its international obligations and to stop subordinating its highly honourable role in internal affairs as the custodian of such an important monument as Hagia Sophia, which belongs to all mankind,” the Foreign Ministry’s statement concluded.

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On July 2, the Council of State of Turkey is expected to rule on the request to annul the presidential decree that turned Hagia Sophia into a museum in 1934.

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