UNESCO, Greece, Cyprus and church leaders among others
express concern about the sixth century site’s shifting status.
President Recep Tayyip Erdogan proclaimed the historic Hagia Sophia in Istanbul to be open to Muslim worship on Friday after
a top court ruled the conversion of the building to a museum by the founding statesman of modern Turkey was unconstitutional.
In spite of foreign warnings not to change the status of the nearly 1,500-year-old
landmark, Erdogan made his announcement just one hour after the court ruling was announced.
“The decision was made to turn over the management of the Ayasofya Mosque … to
the Directorate of Religious Affairs and to open it to worship,” said Erdogan ‘s statement.
Istanbul’s UNESCO World Heritage Site, a magnet for visitors worldwide, was first built as a
cathedral in the Byzantine Christian Empire but converted into a mosque after Constantine’s Ottoman conquest
The court ruling was immediately followed by Erdogan announcing that it
would reopen the UNESCO World Heritage Site in Istanbul for Muslim worship.
Unanimously, the Council of State, Turkey ‘s highest administrative court, overturned a cabinet decision
of 1934 and said Hagia Sophia was listed as a mosque in her property deeds.
Among those who expressed concern about changing the status of the huge sixth-century building, converted into a museum in the
early days of modern secular Turkish state under Mustafa Kemal Ataturk were the representatives of the United States, Greece and churches.
Below is a round-up of international
reactions to decisions made on Friday.
The Russian Orthodox Church expressed dismay at the decision by Turkey to revoke Hagia
Sophia ‘s museum status, accusing her of violating the voices of millions of Christians.
“There has been no hearing of the concern of millions of Christians,” Russian Orthodox
Church spokesman Vladimir Legoida said in comments made by the Russian news agency Interfax.
“Today’s court decision reveals that it has dismissed all
demands for extreme delicacy in this matter,” Legoida said.
Recently, the Russian Orthodox Church called for caution about demands to change the status of the ancient former cathedral, and Russian
Patriarch Kirill said he was “deeply worried” about such a possible move and called it a “danger to the whole Christian community.”
Previously, the spiritual head of some 300 million Orthodox Christians worldwide and headquartered in Istanbul, Ecumenical
Patriarch Bartholomew said turning it into a mosque would offend Christians and “fracture” East and West.
UNESCO said that its Committee on World Heritage should review the status of Hagia Sophia, adding
that it was “regrettable that the Turkish decision was not the subject of dialog or prior notice.”
“UNESCO calls on the Turkish authorities to open a dialog without delay in order to prevent a step back from the universal interest of this exceptional
heritage, the protection of which will be checked at its next session by the World Heritage Committee,” the United Nations Cultural Organization said in a statemen
The European region,
European Union foreign policy leader
Josep Borrell called the “regrettable” decision.
“The ruling by the Turkish State Council to reverse one of the historic decisions of modern Turkey and the decision
by President Erdogan to put the monument under the presidency of religious affairs is regrettable,” he said in a statement.
Cypriot Foreign Minister Nikos Christodoulides, a Greek Cypriot, wrote on his official Twitter page that Cyprus “strongly opposes the actions
of Turkey against Hagia Sophia as it tries to divert domestic opinion and calls on Turkey to honor its international obligations.”
United States of America
“We are saddened by the Turkish Government’s decision to change Hagia Sophia
‘s status,” said Morgan Ortagus, spokeswoman for the State Department, in a statemen.
“We recognize that the Turkish Government remains committed to holding all tourists open to the Hagia Sophia, and look forward
to hearing its proposals for continued stewardship of the Hagia Sophia to ensure that it remains available to everyone without impediment.”
Greece described the transfer of Turkey as a “simple threat to the civilized world.”
“The racism that Erdogan shows … takes his country back
six centuries,” said Minister of Culture Lina Mendoni in a statement.
The court decision “fully confirms that there is
no independent justice” in Turkey, Mendoni further said.
Vladimir Dzhabarov, deputy head of the Russian upper
house foreign affairs committee, called the decision “a mistake.”
He said “Turning it into a mosque would do nothing for the Muslim world. It will
not bring nations together, but will bring them into conflict on the contrary,”
The Palestinian Hamas organization has accepted the decision
allowing Hagia Sophia to be opened as a mosque.
“It is a proud moment for all Muslims to open Hagia Sophia to prayer,” said Rafat
Murra, head of Hamas’ international press office, in a written statement quoted by Turkey’s Anadolu Agency.
Murra underlined that the decision came under the citizenship rights of Turkey.
The Turkish Republic of Northern Cyprus (TRNC), acknowledged only by
Turkey, is delighted to have Hagia Sophia opened as a mosque.
“Hagia Sophia has been a Turkish mosque and a world heritage since 1453. It is sound and pleasing to continue
to use it as a mosque and at the same time being used as a museum,” said Premier Ersin Tatar.