Two Turkish officials stated on Thursday that it is likely that a Turkish court will give its approval for the reconversion of the former Byzantine cathedral Hagia Sofia back into a mosque, as had been done after the Ottoman Turks captured the city in 1453.
Turning the building which for almost one thousand years was the seat of Eastern Christianity back into a mosque has been encouraged by Turkish leader Recep Tayyip Erdogan in recent months.
He had stated that the decision to turn what has been a secular museum since 1935, and which now belongs on the UNESCO’s list of World Heritage Sites, rested with Turkey’s Council of State, not with himself.
Erdogan charged Turkey’s highest administrative body with deciding the legality of the original decision that was reached in 1934 which allowed the Byzantine cathedral to become a museum.
“We expect the decision to be an annulment (and) the verdict to come out on Friday,” a senior Turkish official told the Reuters news agency.
The move has sparked international outrage, as well as strong condemnation from religious figures, including Ecumenical Patriarch Bartholomew, the leader of some 300 million Orthodox Christians worldwide, who said a conversion would disappoint Christians and “fracture” East and West.
These are considered especially brave words since the Patriarch’s seat is still within the city of Istanbul.
The head of the Russian Orthodox Church, Patriarch Kyrill of Moscow, said turning the priceless edifice back into a mosque would “threaten Christianity.”
It has been widely understood that Erdogan needs the strong support of Islamist factions within Turkey in order to retain his grip on power, and the bold move is one way in which to show his credibility to that sector of the Turkish electorate.
Pro-government columnist Abdulkadir Selvi wrote in the Turkish newspaper Hurriyet that the Council of State had in fact already ruled in favor of annulling the 1934 decision and that the announcement would come on Friday. Selvi wrote “This nation has been waiting for eighty-six years. The court lifted the chain of bans on Hagia Sophia.”
Ambassador Sam Brownback, who serves as the US Ambassador of Religious Freedom, urged Turkey recently to abandon plans to reconvert the sixth century monument into a mosque.
“Hagia Sophia holds enormous spiritual and cultural significance to billions of believers of different faiths around the world,” Brownback said in a tweet two weeks ago.
“We call on the Government of Turkey to maintain it as a UNESCO World Heritage site and to maintain accessibility to all in its current status as a museum,” the ambassador added.
A number of officials from the nation of Greece, as well as US Secretary of State Mike Pompeo and Greek-American Representative from Florida Gus Bilirakis have also strongly cautioned Turkey to keep the status quo regarding the hallowed building.
The longtime Florida representative says that he has repeatedly spoken to President Trump and Vice President Pence, Secretary of State Mike Pompeo, and members of the National Security Council as well as Ambassador Brownback regarding the “serious threat” of Hagia Sophia’s purported reconversion into a mosque.
“We bring this up all the time,” Bilirakis stated, adding that he also speaks regularly to members of the Foreign Affairs Committee on the subject.