Erdogan signals support to turn Hagia Sophia, 6th century seat of Eastern Christianity, back into mosque

Hagia Sophia
Local and foreign tourists visit the Byzantine monument of Hagia Sophia, or Ayasofya, which is now a museum in Istanbul June 7, 2012. |

Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan is in favor of turning Istanbul’s Hagia Sophia back into a mosque as a court is expected to decide within 15 days the fate of the Unesco world heritage site, which was the seat of Eastern Christianity for 900 years before being converted into an Ottoman mosque and then into a museum.

Turkey’s Council of State, the country’s highest administrative court, held a hearing lasting just 17 minutes Thursday and said it would make a ruling within 15 days on the future of Hagia Sophia, according to BBC.

Hagia Sophia was built in A.D. 537 as a Greek Orthodox church and was the seat of Eastern Christianity before the city was seized by Sultan Mehmed II, the Conqueror, in the 15th century. In 1934, modern Turkey’s founder, Mustafa Kemal Ataturk, banned worship in Hagia Sophia and designated it as a museum.

Erdogan is in favor of Hagia Sophia's conversion into a mosque, according to local media, The Sunday Times reported.

Reports in Turkish media suggest that the court may ask the government to decide the status of Hagia Sophia, allowing Erdogan to take the credit for it and gain support among his conservative base at a time when the opposition party has called for early elections.

Erdogan may hold the first Muslim prayer at Hagia Sophia as early as July 15, the anniversary of the 2016 coup attempt against his rule, according to some reports.

Many Turks argue that Turkey is an overwhelmingly Muslim country and therefore Hagia Sophia should be turned back into a mosque to better reflect its identity.

U.S. Secretary of State Mike Pompeo has urged Turkey to “continue to maintain the Hagia Sophia as a museum, as an exemplar of its commitment to respect the faith traditions and diverse history that contributed to the Republic of Turkey, and to ensure it remains accessible to all.”

“The United States views a change in the status of the Hagia Sophia as diminishing the legacy of this remarkable building and its unsurpassed ability—so rare in the modern world—to serve humanity as a much-needed bridge between those of differing faith traditions and cultures,” Pompeo said in a statement.

Last month, the U.S.-based Christian group Order of Saint Andrew the Apostle, Archons of the Ecumenical Patriarchate, wrote to President Donald Trump, urging him to “protect the religious freedom of Christians in Turkey and the common heritage of humanity by preventing this sacrilegious and unnecessary decision.”

“It is part of ongoing efforts to delegitimize the remaining Christian population of Turkey, further eroding their religious freedom, and to obliterate a significant element of the Christian heritage of Turkey and the surrounding region, as well as of the entire world. Converting Hagia Sophia Museum, a UNESCO World Heritage Site to a mosque, would render it the patrimony of one nation, an unjust and provocative act as this historic site truly belongs to the world,” it said.

Ecumenical Patriarch Bartholomew, the Istanbul-based spiritual head of about 300 million Orthodox Christians worldwide, has said that the conversion of Hagia Sophia into a mosque “will disappoint millions of Christians around the world,” according to Reuters.

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