Turkey has yet again prompted the response of Greece’s culture minister, Lina Mendoni, after it re-tabled its plan to convert the historic former Greek Orthodox church of Hagia Sophia in the heart of Istanbul, into a mosque.
Mendoni sent a letter on Thursday to representatives of UNESCO member states calling for immediate action and noting that Turkey was creating hype for political reasons.
Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan brought the issue to the news once again on Wednesday, citing US President Donald Trump’s decision to recognize Golan Heights last year.
It should be reminded that Erdogan has repeatedly attempted to change the status of the UNESCO World Heritage site, demanding that it be turned into a mosque and that Muslim prayers and readings from the Quran be allowed in Hagia Sophia.
“Hagia Sofia must not be allowed to be divested of its universal character and turned into a Muslim place of worship,” Mendoni said.
“What the Turkish government and President [Recep Tayyip] Erdogan are attempting to do today revives and reignites fanatic nationalist and religious sentiment. It is an attempt to diminish the monument’s value and international radiance,” said the Greek culture minister.
The Greek minister went on to add that any change of status of the Hagia Sophia would require the approval of UNESCO, under the 1972 Convention which Turkey has signed.
In 2018, again in response to Erdogan’s populist antics, Turkey’s High Court ruled that the Hagia Sophia could not be used as a mosque and would remain a museum, and a year before that, in 2017, the US State Department also called on Turkey to respect the diverse history of the temple with regard to claims again to convert the Istanbul monument into a mosque.
Each year, Erdogan tables the suggestion amid repeated violations of Greek airspace.
“What can I say as a Christian clergyman and the Greek patriarch in Istanbul? Instead of uniting, a 1,500-year-old heritage is dividing us. I am saddened and shaken,” Ecumenical Patriarch Bartholomew I of Constantinople, the 80-year-old spiritual leader of 300 million Orthodox Christians worldwide, told the Washington Post.
The Greek Orthodox church of Hagia Sophia was constructed between 532 and 537 on the orders of Byzantine Emperor Justinian I, and served as the seat of the Ecumenical Patriarchate of Constantinople.
It was later converted into a mosque in 1453, when Ottoman forces conquered the city (today Istanbul), adding Islamic minarets. In the mid-1930s, the Kemal Ataturk government converted it into a museum which today is one of Turkey’s leading tourist attractions.
A significant part of Greek heritage and history, the Hagia Sophia, which means “Church of Divine Wisdom” in Greek, is considered one of the world’s greatest Byzantine monuments.