Greek diplomatic sources on Friday welcomed a statement by the UNESCO World Heritage Committee expressing regret over Turkey’s decision to convert Hagia Sophia and Chora Monastery into mosques, while Turkish authorities rejected criticism of the conversion as “biased and politically motivated”.
UNESCO Director-General Audrey Azoulay deeply regretted the decision of the Turkish authorities, made without prior discussion, to change the status of Hagia Sophia. She shared her concerns with the Ambassador of Turkey to UNESCO during the group’s 44th session which was held online from China.
“Hagia Sophia is an architectural masterpiece and a unique testimony to interactions between Europe and Asia over the centiries,” she said. “Its status as a museum reflects the universal nature of its heritage, and makes it a powerful symbol for dialogue.”
UNESCO’s concerns were shared with the Republic of Turkey in several letters and again at the meeting with the representative of the Turkish delegation. UNESCO called upon the Turkish authorities to initiate dialogue so that any detrimental effect on the universal value of the cathedral’s exceptional heritage could be mitigated. The state of Hagia Sophia’s conservation, now that it is no longer under the control of Turkey’s ministry of culture but under that of religious affairs, is also a matter of concern and will be examined by the World Heritage Committee at its next session.
Turkey has been asked by UNESCO’s World Heritage Committee to submit a report about the state of conservation of the Hagia Sophia by 1 February, 2022, and the group expressed “grave concern” over the consequences of its conversion into a mosque.
“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.
The Turkish Foreign Ministry said it “rejects the relevant articles of the UNESCO World Heritage Committee’s decisions on Istanbul’s historical sites, understood to be driven by prejudiced, biased and political motives.”
In a statement made on the anniversary of Hagia Sophia’s conversion, the Turkish Ministry slammed UNESCO’s report. “Turkey disassociates itself from the relevant articles of the decision on the ‘Historic Areas of Istanbul’ based on biased, unfair working prepared with political intentions, which is incompatible with the implementations, the factual situation and the Advisory Mission reports,” the ministry stated.
READ MORE: The cost of staying silent on Hagia Sophia
The first anniversary of Hagia Sophia’s conversion was marked on Saturday, 24 July, with calls to prayer at the cathedral-turned-mosque-turned museum-turned-mosque again.
Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan expressed his hope that calls to prayers will be called from Istanbul’s iconic Hagia Sophia “until the end of time”.
On Twitter, the Turkish leader sent out a provocative message by describing the conversion of the Cathedral as its “resurrection” while making clear reference to the Ottoman Empire.
Hagia Sophia museum was declared a mosque exactly a year ago despite a top court ruling the ancient building’s conversion was illegal, while church leaders and Western countries pointed to the shift to exclusive Muslim worship at the cathedral held the risk of deepening religious divisions.