Turkey's Recep Tayip Erdogan has ordered the conversion of the city's historic Hagia Sophia back into a mosque after a Turkish court annulled a 1934 presidential decree that made it a museum.
Shortly after Turkey's top administrative court released its long-anticipated decision, Erdogan issued a presidential decree transferring the management of the site from the Ministry of Culture to the Presidency of Religious Affairs, paving the way for its conversion. Erdogan has been a major proponent of the move.
The Hagia Sophia was the Roman Empire's first Christian cathedral and is among the best-known Byzantine structures in the world. It switched from a Greek Orthodox cathedral to a mosque in 1453, when the Ottomans conquered Constantinople and renamed the city Istanbul. The historic site then became a museum in 1935 as part of a decree by modern Turkey's secularist founding father Mustafa Kemal Ataturk.
Brief history of the Hagia Sofia: 532 CE -- church, constructed by Roman Emperor Justinian 1453 -- converted into a mosque after the Fall of Constantinople 1935 -- converted into a museum by the Turkish Republic Today, 7/10/20 -- converted into a mosque by Erdogan pic.twitter.com/vFOjmpJdUL
Erdogan has positioned himself as a friend of conservative Islamists in Turkey, moving the country further from those secularist roots.
İsmail Kandemir, head of the Association for the Service of the Historical Foundations and the Environment, said after the hearing that "using Hagia Sophia as a museum hurts conscience of people," according to Turkish news agency Anadolu.
Hours before the announcement, UNESCO called on Turkey to avoid changing the "outstanding universal value" of the site and requested "prior notification," signaling that it could change the Hagia Sophia's status on the World Heritage List.
The association filed a lawsuit to the Council of State in 2005 calling for the site to return to being a mosque, but it was rejected in 2008, according to Turkish news agency Anadolu.
It filed another lawsuit in 2016 saying freedom of religion had been violated but the Supreme Court rejected the case in 2018, Anadolu reported.
Erdogan has expressed annoyance at international opposition to the plan, led by neighbor Greece. "They say 'don't convert Aya Sofya into a mosque,'" he said in an interview with state broadcaster TRT on July 5. "Are you ruling Turkey or us? Turkey has institutions. If that step [is] to be taken It is obvious who has authority to do that."
Many analysts say Erdogan's move could be intended to consolidate his voters as the country deals with a shrinking economy and rising unemployment. Turkish-Greek relations are also tense due to geopolitical tensions in the Eastern Mediterranean, including the long-running dispute over Cyprus and around migrants crossing the border between the countries.
In a statement released Wednesday, US Secretary of State Mike Pompeo urged Turkey to maintain the UNESCO World Heritage Site "as an exemplar of its commitment to respect the faith traditions and diverse history that contributed to the Republic of Turkey, and to ensure it remains accessible to all."
He said the site's museum status had enabled people from all over the world to see a "magnificent achievement."
"This extraordinary site is a testament to religious expression and to artistic and technical genius, reflected in its rich and complex 1,500-year history," he said.
"The United States views a change in the status of the Hagia Sophia as diminishing the legacy of this remarkable building and its unsurpassed ability -- so rare in the modern world -- to serve humanity as a much-needed bridge between those of differing faith traditions and cultures."
It’s an alarming signal if a Turkey
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