About a month after converting Istanbul’s landmark Hagia Sophia into a Muslim house of prayer, Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan has now ordered another ancient Orthodox church to be turned into a mosque.
Erdogan, who is seeking to gain support among his conservative base amid economic and political uncertainty, has officially ordered that Istanbul’s medieval Church of the Holy Saviour in Chora — also known as the Kariye Museum — be handed over to Turkey’s religious authority for its conversion into a Muslim house of prayer, The Associated Press reported.
Originally built in the early 4th century by Constantine the Great, the Holy Saviour church was converted into the Kariye Mosque about 50 years after the 1453 conquest of Constantinople by the Ottoman Turks. In 1945, the building was designated a museum by the Turkish government. The museum was opened for public display in 1958 after American art historians helped restore the original church's mosaics.
The foreign ministry of Greece, where millions of Orthodox Christians live, condemned Erdogan’s decision for “once again brutally insulting the character” of another U.N. world heritage site.
“This is a provocation against all believers,” the Greek ministry said in a statement. “We urge Turkey to return to the 21st century, and the mutual respect, dialogue and understanding between civilizations.”
Turkey’s Opposition HDP party lawmaker Garo Paylan called the move “a shame for our country.”
“One of the symbols of our country’s deep, multicultural identity and multi-religious history has been sacrificed,” he tweeted, according to France 24.
Before opening the structure for Muslim prayers, the church’s walls will be covered up or plastered over to hide the Christian art. And that would be “destruction,” Ottoman Empire historian Zeynep Turkyilmaz told the AFP. “It is impossible to hide the frescoes and mosaics because they decorate the entire building,” he said.
Last month, Erdogan declared the Hagia Sophia site 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 at the time.
Istanbul’s Hagia Sophia, built in A.D. 537 as a Greek Orthodox church, was the seat of Eastern Christianity 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.
“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 at the time, 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.”
“We strongly denounce President Erdogan’s decision to convert Hagia Sophia from a museum into a mosque,” they said in a joint statement at the time. “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.”