Turkey’s “creeping conversion” of Hagia Sophia

Thanos Davelis, Director of Public Affairs, HALC

On Wednesday night, Turkey held a Koran reading and Muslim prayers in Hagia Sophia — violating its status as a UNESCO World Heritage Site. Turkish government officials were in attendance, and Turkey’s state television channel broadcast the religious service on national television. Unfortunately, this is the latest in a long list of Turkish attempts to slowly convert Hagia Sophia into a mosque.

Greece’s Foreign Ministry condemned the holding of Muslim prayers at Hagia Sophia, issuing the following statement:

“Hagia Sophia is a UNESCO world heritage site. The attempt to convert it into a mosque — through reading of the Koran, holding of prayers, and a number of other actions — is an affront to the international community, which needs to be duly mobilized and to react…
We call on Turkey to conduct itself as a modern and democratic country, to protect the ecumenical nature of Hagia Sophia, and to respect the age-old tradition of this global monument.”

UNESCO and the US State Department also called on Turkey to protect Hagia Sophia’s status. Responding to a question from Michael Ignatiou, State Department Spokesperson Heather Nauert said:

“The site, Hagia Sophia, is a site of extraordinary significance, and we understand that and we respect that. So we call on the Turkish Government to preserve the Hagia Sophia in a way that respects its complex history.”

Turkish nationalist politician Mustafa Destici, the leader of the Great Union Party in Turkey, added fuel to the fire, issuing a statement on Friday saying:

“Let Greece and the world hear that Hagia Sophia is a mosque. With the blessing of Allah, religious ceremonies will soon take place and prayers will be read there again.”

Statements like these are not new, but are part of a larger trend in Turkey. In the past five years Turkish politicians issued similar statements, authorities pursued the conversion of historical Christian sites to mosques, and last year Turkish authorities allowed and broadcast a daily reading from the Quran from Hagia Sophia during the month of Ramadan. Additionally, in 2014 Turkey’s parliament attempted to change the status of Hagia Sophia from a museum to a mosque — a move that was widely condemned as provocative and divisive.

It is evident that Turkey is not concerned with international criticism. Whether it is trampling on human rights and religious freedom, imprisoning journalists and political opponents, or the creeping conversion of Hagia Sophia and other historical Christian sites, Erdogan is determined to steer Turkey toward his autocratic, Islamist, neo-Ottoman vision.