President Erdogan issued a decree Friday ordering Hagia Sophia to be opened for Muslim prayers, an action likely to provoke international condemnation around a World Heritage Site cherished by Christians and Muslims alike for its religious significance, for its stunning structure and as a symbol of conquest.
The presidential decree came minutes after a Turkish court announced that it had revoked Hagia Sophia’s status as a museum, which for the last 80 years had made it a monument of relative harmony and a symbol of the secularism that was part of the foundation of the modern Turkish state.
Built in the sixth century as a cathedral, Hagia Sophia stands as the greatest example of Byzantine Christian architecture in the world. But it has been a source of Christian Muslim rivalry, having stood at the center of Christendom for nearly a millennium and then, after being conquered, of the Muslim Ottoman Empire, when it was last used as a mosque.
Greek culture minister, Lina Mendoni, condemned Turkey’s decision as a “direct challenge to the entire civilized world,” adding that Mr. Erdogan’s nationalism had pushed the country back six centuries.
“President Erdogan has chosen for Turkey its cultural isolation,” she said.
Josep Borrell, the European Union’s senior diplomat, called Turkey’s decision regrettable.
In its own statement on Friday, UNESCO said that Hagia Sophia is inscribed on its world heritage list as a museum which binds the Turkish state to ensure that “no modification is made to the outstanding universal value of the property.” The organization added that communities and others concerned with the property should be ensured inclusive and equitable access to the monument.
Greece strongly condemns Turkey’s decision to turn the World Heritage monument of Hagia Sophia into a mosque, Greek Prime Minister Kyriakos Mitsotakis said on Friday, noting that this “insults its ecumenical character”.
In a statement, the premier said, “This decision – coming 85 years after it was declared a museum – is an insult to its ecumenical character. It also constitutes a choice that similarly insults all those who recognize the monument as part of world culture.”
The decision, Mitsotakis underlined, “affects not only Turkey’s relations with Greece, but those with the European Union, UNESCO, and the global community as a whole.”
“It is regrettable that the Turkish leadership, which in 2005 worked for the Alliance of Cultures, now chooses to move in the entirely opposite direction,” he said.