Erdogan Defies World, Orders Hagia Sophia to be Turned Into Mosque
By Tasos Kokkinidis
Greek Reporter — July 10, 2020
Turkey's top administrative court, the Council of State, announced on Friday that the 1934 conversion of Constantinople's Hagia Sophia into a museum was unlawful, paving the way for its reconversion into a mosque despite strong international opposition.
Turkey's President Recep Tayyip Erdogan then issued a decree to formally declare Hagia Sophia as a mosque, minutes after the Council of State annulled the 1934-dated decision.
Erdogan's decree cited the Council of State's verdict as the basis of his move for the transfer of the powers concerning the use of the Hagia Sophia to the Directorate of Religious Affairs (Diyanet).
In a message on Twitter, Erdogan offered his "best wishes" to the Directorate.
The Turkish daily newspaper Hurriyet reports that crowds were observed to be gathering in front of Hagia Sophia after news broke out on the status change.
President Tayyip Erdogan has proposed restoring the mosque status of the sixth-century UNESCO World Heritage Site, which was central to the Christian Byzantine empire and is now one of the most visited monuments in Turkey.
The move has sparked international outrage, as well as strong condemnation from religious figures, including Ecumenical Patriarch Bartholomew, the leader of some 300 million Orthodox Christians worldwide, who said a conversion would disappoint Christians and "fracture" East and West.
These are considered especially brave words since the Patriarch's seat is still within the city of Istanbul.
The head of the Russian Orthodox Church, Patriarch Kyrill of Moscow, said turning the priceless edifice back into a mosque would "threaten Christianity".
Ambassador Sam Brownback, who serves as the US Ambassador of Religious Freedom, urged Turkey recently to abandon plans to reconvert the sixth century monument into a mosque.
"Hagia Sophia holds enormous spiritual and cultural significance to billions of believers of different faiths around the world", Brownback said in a tweet two weeks ago.
"We call on the Government of Turkey to maintain it as a UNESCO World Heritage site and to maintain accessibility to all in its current status as a museum", the ambassador added.
A number of officials from the nation of Greece, as well as US Secretary of State Mike Pompeo and Greek-American Representative from Florida Gus Bilirakis have also strongly cautioned Turkey to keep the status quo regarding the hallowed building.
The longtime Florida representative says that he has repeatedly spoken to President Trump and Vice President Pence, Secretary of State Mike Pompeo, and members of the National Security Council as well as Ambassador Brownback regarding the "serious threat" of Hagia Sophia's purported reconversion into a mosque.
"We bring this up all the time", Bilirakis stated, adding that he also speaks regularly to members of the Foreign Affairs Committee on the subject.
UNESCO statement on Hagia Sophia, Constantinople
Paris, July 10, 2020
Hagia Sophia: UNESCO deeply regrets the decision of the Turkish authorities, made without prior discussion, and calls for the universal value of World Heritage to be preserved
The Director-General of UNESCO deeply regrets the decision of the Turkish authorities, made without prior discussion, to change the status of Hagia Sophia. This evening, she shared her serious concerns with the Ambassador of Turkey to UNESCO.
Hagia Sophia is part of the Historic Areas of Istanbul, a property inscribed on UNESCO's World Heritage List. "Hagia Sophia is an architectural masterpiece and a unique testimony to interactions between Europe and Asia over the centuries. Its status as a museum reflects the universal nature of its heritage, and makes it a powerful symbol for dialogue", said Director-General Audrey Azoulay.
This decision announced today raises the issue of the impact of this change of status on the property's universal value. States have an obligation to ensure that modifications do not affect the Outstanding Universal Value of inscribed sites on their territories. UNESCO must be given prior notice of any such modifications, which, if necessary, are then examined by the World Heritage Committee.
UNESCO also recalls that the effective, inclusive and equitable participation of communities and other stakeholders concerned by the property is necessary to preserve this heritage and highlight its uniqueness and significance. The purpose of this requirement is to protect and transmit the Outstanding Universal Value of heritage, and it is inherent to the spirit of the World Heritage Convention.
These concerns were shared with the Republic of Turkey in several letters, and again yesterday evening with the representative of the Turkish Delegation to UNESCO. It is regrettable that the Turkish decision was made without any form of dialogue or prior notice. UNESCO calls upon the Turkish authorities to initiate dialogue without delay, in order to prevent any detrimental effect on the universal value of this exceptional heritage, the state of conservation of which will be examined by the World Heritage Committee at its next session.
"It is important to avoid any implementing measure, without prior discussion with UNESCO, that would affect physical access to the site, the structure of the buildings, the site's moveable property, or the site's management", stressed Ernesto Ottone, UNESCO's Assistant Director-General for Culture. Such measures could constitute breaches of the rules derived from the 1972 World Heritage Convention.