Turkey orders Hagia Sophia, ancient seat of eastern Christianity, be turned into mosque

Roman Emperor Constantine the Great, as depicted in a Medieval mosaic at Hagia Sophia in Istanbul, Turkey.
Roman Emperor Constantine the Great, as depicted in a Medieval mosaic at Hagia Sophia in Istanbul, Turkey. | Wikimedia Commons)

Correction Appended

Religious and political leaders worldwide on Friday criticized Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan for officially declaring that the Hagia Sophia site, one of the world's most prominant Christian cathedrals, is now a mosque open to Muslim worship.

“Turkish people have no less right to Hagia Sophia than those who built it first 1,500 years ago,” Erdogan said in a televised speech Friday after signing a decree transferring the management of the sixth-century UNESCO world heritage site from the Ministry of Culture to the Directorate of Religious Affairs, The Wall Street Journal reported.

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Istanbul’s Hagia Sophia, built in A.D. 537 as a Greek Orthodox church, was the seat of the Ecumenical Patriarchate of Constantinople for 900 years before the city was seized in the 15th century by Sultan Mehmed II, the Conqueror, who converted it into an Ottoman mosque. In 1934, modern Turkey’s founder, Mustafa Kemal Ataturk, banned worship in Hagia Sophia and designated it as a museum.

Erdogan’s declaration came within an hour after the Council of State, Turkey’s highest administrative court, on Friday ruled that the edict that converted the structure into a museum was illegal.

Erdogan said Hagia Sophia would reopen to Muslim prayer as a full-fledged mosque this month. “Like all our mosques, the doors of Hagia Sophia will be wide open to locals and foreigners, Muslims and non-Muslims,” he said, according to BBC.

Greece, where millions of Orthodox Christians live, condemned Turkey’s move. The country’s Culture Minister Lina G. Mendoni called it an “open provocation to the civilized world.”

“The nationalism displayed by President Erdogan... takes his country back six centuries,” she said in a statement, adding that the court ruling “absolutely confirms that there is no independent justice” in Turkey.

The United States also responded to Erdogan’s decision.

“We are disappointed by the decision by the Government of Turkey to change the status of the Hagia Sophia,” State Department spokesperson Morgan Ortagus said in a statement, according to Reuters. “We understand the Turkish Government remains committed to maintaining access to the Hagia Sophia for all visitors, and look forward to hearing its plans for continued stewardship of the Hagia Sophia to ensure it remains accessible without impediment for all.”

U.S. Senate Foreign Relations Committee Chairman James Risch, R-Idaho, and ranking member Bob Menendez, D-N.J., called the move a “deep affront to Christians around the world who look to Hagia Sophia as a shining light and deeply revered holy site,” The Hill reported.

“We strongly denounce President Erdogan’s decision to convert Hagia Sophia from a museum into a mosque,” they said in a joint statement. “At points in its history, Hagia Sophia served as a place of worship for Muslims and Christians, and for decades has been an extraordinary and welcoming center to people of all faiths.”

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

“The ruling by the Turkish Council of State to overturn one of modern Turkey’s landmark decisions and President Erdogan’s decision to place the monument under the management of the Religious Affairs Presidency is regrettable,” Borrell said in a statement, according to Al Jazeera, a Qatari government-run news outlet. 

The U.N. cultural body Unesco called on Turkey “to open a dialog 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.”

“It is regrettable that the Turkish decision was not the subject of dialog nor notification beforehand,” it said.

Russian Orthodox Church spokesman Vladimir Legoida told the Russian news agency Interfax that the concern of “millions of Christians has not been heard.”

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

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

U.S. Secretary of State Mike Pompeo had 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 had said in a statement.

Many believe Erdogan made this decision as an attempt to gain support among his conservative base at a time when the opposition party has called for early elections.

Correction: This original version of this article has been corrected to reflect that Hagia Sophia was the seat of the Ecumenical Patriarchate of Constantinople. The structure was built prior to the Great Schism in 1054 which led to the split between the Roman Catholic and Eastern Orthodox churches. This story was corrected on June 1, 2023.

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