World reacts to Turkey’s decision to re-convert Hagia Sophia into mosque

Jul 11 2020

The world has been reacting to the Turkish government’s decision to re-convert the Hagia Sophia museum into a mosque.

“To convert it back to a mosque is to say to the rest of the world unfortunately we are not secular anymore,” Turkish Nobel prize-winning novelist Orhan Pamuk told the BBC on Friday.

“There are millions of secular Turks like me who are crying against this but their voices are not heard.”

Pamuk said that Ankara’s move took away the “pride” some Turkish people had in being a secular Muslim country.

On Friday, Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan announced the opening of the Hagia Sophia to Muslim worship after the Council of State – Turkey’s highest administrative court – ruled that the building’s conversion to a museum by modern Turkey’s founding statesman was illegal.

In a televised address, Erdoğan said that prayers will be held at the site on July 24.

The Hagia Sophia, originally built as a Byzantine cathedral in 537, was turned into a mosque following the Ottoman conquest of Istanbul on May 29, 1453, and then became a museum in 1935 under Mustafa Kemal Atatürk’s presidency.

Over the years, Erdoğan has repeatedly suggested turning the UNESCO World Heritage Site into a mosque again to fulfil a long-standing demand by Turkey’s Islamists

Meanwhile, more reaction has been coming in over a decision that has dismayed many around the world.

U.S. Senators Jim Risch and Bob Menendez denounced the decision to turn the Hagia Sophia into a mosque.

“Erdoğan’s move today is a deep affront to Christians around the world who look to Hagia Sophia as a shining light and deeply revered holy site. This conversion of its status is unnecessarily divisive at a time when we need more, not fewer, efforts to build bridges between Islam and Christianity,” the senators said.

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“We strongly urge Erdoğan to reverse this decision and sustain Hagia Sophia’s remarkable legacy and maintain its status as a religiously neutral museum for people of all faiths and cultures to visit and celebrate our common world heritage,” the added.

U.S. Democratic presidential nominee Joe Biden called on Erdoğan to reverse his decision to turn Hagia Sophia into a mosque.

“I deeply regret the Turkish government’s decision to convert the Hagia Sophia into a mosque and urge Turkish President Recep Erdoğan to reverse his decision and instead keep this treasured place in its current status as a museum, ensuring equal access for all,” Biden said in a statement he released on Friday.

The Russian Orthodox Church expressed dismay at Turkey’s decision.

“The concern of millions of Christians has not been heard,” the Russian news agency Interfax cited Russian Orthodox Church spokesman Vladimir Legoida as saying on Friday.

“Today’s court ruling shows that all calls for the need for extreme delicacy in this matter were ignored,” Legoida said.

Russian Senator Konstantin Kosachev on Friday said Ankara’s decision to convert the Hagia Sophia museum into a mosque would trigger a negative response in the Christian world.

“The cathedral will again be used as a mosque, and, certainly, this will trigger an extremely negative response throughout the entire Christian world,” Russian TASS news agency quoted Kosachev, who heads the Foreign Affairs committee at the upper chamber of the Russian parliament, as saying.

UNESCO said its World Heritage Committee would review Hagia Sophia’s status.

“UNESCO calls on the Turkish authorities to open a dialogue without delay in order to avoid a step back from the universal value of this exceptional heritage whose preservation will be reviewed by the World Heritage Committee in its next session,” the United Nation’s cultural body said in a statement.

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The European Union’s foreign policy chief Josep Borrell called the decision “regrettable”.

“The ruling by the Turkish Council of State to overturn one of modern Turkey’s landmark decisions and President Erdoğan’s decision to place the monument under the management of the Religious Affairs Presidency is regrettable,” he said in a statement.

France said Turkey’s decision to modify the status of the Hagia Sophia calls “into question one of the most symbolic acts of modern and secular Turkey.’’

“The integrity of this religious, architectural and historic gem, a symbol of freedom of religion, tolerance and diversity, listed as a UNESCO World Heritage Site, must be preserved,’’ France’s Minister for Europe and Foreign Affairs, Jean-Yves Le Drian, said in a statement released on Friday.

“Hagia Sophia must continue to represent the plurality and diversity of religious heritage, dialogue and tolerance,” Le Drian said.

Greece branded Turkey’s move an “open provocation to the civilised world”.

“The nationalism displayed by Erdoğan… takes his country back six centuries,” Greek Culture Minister Lina Mendoni said in a statement.

Mendoni further said the court ruling “absolutely confirms that there is no independent justice” in Turkey.

However, the Turkish Republic of Northern Cyprus (TRNC), recognised only by Turkey, praised the decision.

“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,” Prime Minister Ersin Tatar said.

Palestinian militant group Hamas also welcomed the decision.

“Opening of Hagia Sophia to prayer is a proud moment for all Muslims,” Turkey’s state-run Anadolu news agency cited Rafat Murra, head of international press office of Hamas, as saying.

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The conversion of Hagia Sophia was one of Erdoğan’s last remaining populist points and after having used it up, the Turkish president would only have “the Gezi park and death penalty” to fall back on should he need another boost, Deutsche Welle Turkish quoted German newspaper Die Welt as saying.

Erdoğan will use international criticism against the conversion to his advantage, DW cited another German newspaper Neue Presse as saying, “but the transformation of Hagia Sophia shows that Erdoğan has no other better ideas.”

On Saturday, the World Council of Churches called on Erdoğan to reverse his decision to turn the Hagia Sophia museum back into a mosque, warning the move would sow division.

“By deciding to convert the Hagia Sophia back to a mosque you have reversed that positive sign of Turkey’s openness and changed it to a sign of exclusion and division,” the Council, which counts 350 churches as members, said in a letter to the Turkish president.

In his televised speech on Friday, Erdoğan sought to reassure Christians that they would still be welcome at the site and began his speech by announcing that the $15 entrance fee will be waived, since the Byzantine-era monument is no longer a museum but a mosque and an active place of worship.

The Hagia Sophia’s doors will remain open “for all, local and foreign, Muslim and non-Muslim”, he said.

Karar news website reported on Saturday that curtains and folding screens will likely be used to cover the site’s many Christian mosaics, icons and symbols during Muslim prayers.