Byzantine Emperor Justinian’s jewel, build in the sixth century Hagia Sophia instantly became and remained the main seat of the Eastern Orthodox church for hundreds of years.
The building, a recognised UNESCO World Heritage Site was first constructed as a cathedral in the Christian Byzantine Empire but was converted into a mosque after the Ottoman conquest of Constantinople in 1453.
The Council of State, Turkey’s highest administrative court, unanimously cancelled a 1934 cabinet decision and said Hagia Sophia was registered as a mosque in its property deeds, however, the building opened its doors as a museum in 1935.
For decades, Hagia Sophia has been one of the most popular museums in Turkey, drawing more than 3.7 million visitors last year; a monument of faith that brings people of different racial and religious backgrounds together.
On Friday, President Recep Tayyip Erdogan declared Istanbul’s iconic Hagia Sophia open to Muslim worship, despite international warnings not to change the status of the nearly 1,500-year-old monument.
“The decision was taken to hand over the management of the Ayasofya Mosque … to the Religious Affairs Directorate and open it for worship,” the announcement said.
Moments before the statement was issued, the 1934 cabinet decision that turned the site into a museum had been annulled followed by a decree handing over Hagia Sophia to Turkey’s Religious Affairs Presidency.
According to the Turkish president, the first prayers inside Hagia Sofia will be held on 24 July 2020.
The announcement has seen countries, world leaders and organisations, as well as individuals express their concern and opposition against this decision.
First to express outrage was the Russian Orthodox Church: “The concern of millions of Christians has not been heard,” Russian Orthodox Church spokesman Vladimir Legoida said in comments aired by Russian news agency Interfax.
“Today’s court ruling shows that all calls for the need for extreme delicacy in this matter were ignored,” Legoida said.
In turn, Russian Patriarch Kirill said he was “deeply concerned” about such a potential move and called it a “threat to the whole of Christian civilisation”.
Moreover, Istanbul-based Ecumenical Patriarch Bartholomew, said that converting Hagia Sophia it into a mosque would “disappoint Christians and fracture East and West”.
UNESCO said its World Heritage Committee would review Hagia Sophia’s status, going on to say that it is “regrettable that the Turkish decision was not the subject of dialog nor notification beforehand”.
“UNESCO calls on the Turkish authorities 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 said in a statement.
Josep Borrell, The European Union’s (EU) foreign policy chief dubbed the announcement “regrettable”, adding that “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”.
Meanwhile, Cyprus’ Foreign Minister Nikos Christodoulides, took to Twitter to clarify that Cyprus “strongly condemns Turkey’s actions on Hagia Sophia in its effort to distract domestic opinion and calls on Turkey to respect its international obligations”.
More outrage and disappointment came from the United States of America. In the words of Morgan Ortagus, the State Department’s spokesperson the U.S. “are disappointed by the decision by the government of Turkey to change the status of the Hagia Sophia”.
“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,” the statement continued.
The American Hellenic Institute (AHI) also took a stance strongly condemning Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan’s formal announcement calling it a “sordid act”.
“Members of the U.S. Congress, in both chambers, and Administration officials, who profess to be persons of faith and advocates of religious freedom must immediately implement every policy at their disposal to demonstrate that this act is intolerable,” AHI President Nick Larigakis said.
“Hagia Sophia is a UNESCO World Heritage Site of outstanding universal value. By this deplorable act, Turkey adds to its pattern of rejecting international norms, international institutions, laws, and treaties. Erdogan has exiled from the political and social life of Turkey any notion of religious tolerance,” AHI stressed.
Organisations such as AHI have repeatedly publicised the fact that Turkey is erasing its religious and cultural heritage by suppressing of the freedom of its religious minorities to worship as they see proper. In a February 11, 2020 statement, AHI condemned a Turkish administrative court’s ruling in which the court that denigrated Turkey’s Christian heritage. AHI presciently stated that, “The decision is an ominous precedent for any church that later served as a mosque, particularly Hagia Sophia.”
AHI has long maintained that Turkey violates U.S. principles and law on freedom of religion as they are set forth in Section 2804 of the FY98 Omnibus Emergency Supplemental Appropriations Act (PL 105-277). This law calls for the Turkish government to safeguard the Ecumenical Patriarchate, its personnel, and its property, and to reopen the Halki Patriarchal School of Theology.
“Furthermore, Turkey violates every tenet of the International Religious Freedom Act (IFRA). The IRFA mandates that the President hold Turkey accountable for such violations. The President make take one or more of 15 enumerated actions against a country which so blatantly acts against religious freedom. When the United States International Commission on Religious Freedom (USCIRF) issued its 2020 report on Turkey, AHI contended Turkey should have been designated as a “country of particular concern.” Today’s action by President Erdogan further justifies that designation for Turkey in the Commission’s report next year. The United States’ and international community’s appeasement of Turkey must end. Otherwise, Turkey will continue with its provocative acts, such has today’s reconversion of Hagia Sophia into a mosque, which are egregious and without fear of repercussion,” AHI concluded.
Greece, unsurprisingly, branded Turkey’s move an “open provocation to the civilised world”.
“The nationalism displayed by Erdogan … takes his country back six centuries,” Culture Minister Lina Mendoni said in a statement. “The court ruling absolutely confirms that there is no independent justice” she added.
In a letter to the Prime Minister, President of the Greek Community of Melbourne and Victoria Bill Papastergiadis urged the Australian Government to add to the outcry.
Mr Papastergiadis OAM highlighted that Hagia Sophia plays a significant symbolic role in the life of many people around the world, including Australians of Greek background heavily condemning the act.
In saying that, Palestinian group Hamas has welcomed the verdict allowing the opening of Hagia Sophia as a mosque.
Speaking to Turkey’s Anadolu Agency Rafat Murra, head of international press office of Hamas said that the decision fell under Turkey’s sovereignty rights and that “Opening of Hagia Sophia to prayer is a proud moment for all Muslims”.
Finally, the Turkish Republic of Northern Cyprus (TRNC), recognised only by Turkey, declared its approval of the opening of Hagia Sophia as a mosque.
“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.