Athens-based tour operator Zorpidis Travel announced this week that it had removed visits to Istanbul from its itineraries following Turkish President Tayyip Erdogan’s decision to convert the historic Byzantine monument and museum – the Hagia Sophia – into a mosque.
The president of the company, Michalis Zorpidis announced the decision on Radio North 98.
“The Hagia Sophia is not and cannot be mosque,” said Zorpidis, who also heads the Professional Chamber of Thessaloniki.
Earlier on Friday, thousands of Muslims gathered at the Hagia Sophia to pray for the first time in nearly 86 years.
Zorpidis Travel arranges bus tours to the neighboring country.
“There is a great deal of interest for Istanbul from Macedonia… We will not continue our trips… as long as the Hagia Sophia is a mosque,” he added.
At the same time, Greek Foreign Minister Nikos Dendias held a meeting on Wednesday, attended by Culture Minister Lina Mendoni, Greece’s Ambassador to UNESCO, Maria Diamantopoulou, and the Chair of the Greek National Committee for UNESCO, Maria-Ekaterini Papachristopoulou-Tzitzikosta, to discuss Greece’s actions in response to the issue.
Initiatives include an international awareness-raising campaign level to prompt international authorities into action to protect the monument and the creation of a working group to coordinate.
“We have decided to raise the issue through international initiatives that we will undertake as European citizens and as citizens of the global community, conversing with all international organizations, and of course leading with UNESCO,” said Dendias.
“Our goal is to protect this monument that has universal value. Besides, it was registered as such by UNESCO. The universality of the Hagia Sophia monument was demonstrated by the reactions of the international community,” he added.
Later today, Erdogan, who has violated international laws in converting the UNESCO World Heritage Site into a mosque annulling Turkish Leader Kemal Ataturk’s decision in 1930 to convert the former hub of Christianity into a museum, was scheduled to attend prayers and a ceremony. His decision has been internationally condemned.
Meanwhile, the bells of Greek Orthodox churches in Patra have been tolling mournfully in response to the change of status.
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.
A significant part of Greek and Christian heritage and history, the Hagia Sophia, which means “Church of Divine Wisdom” in Greek, is considered one of the world’s greatest Byzantine monuments and one of Turkey’s leading tourist attractions.