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Turkey's President Erdogan proposes converting Hagia Sophia Museum to mosque

Sunday, March 31, 2019

On Wednesday, as a part of his pre-election campaign, the Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan pledged converting Hagia Sophia, formerly a Greek Orthodox church and now a museum, to a mosque, following the election today. He announced this change by live television on Wednesday and again verbally in a rally on Friday, despite criticism by the Greek foreign minister and United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization (UNESCO) who questioned his authority to make the change.

Recep Tayyip Erdogan.
Image: kremlin.ru.
Hagia Sophia
Image: Arild Vågen.

On Friday in Istanbul, as a part of an election rally, Erdogan said, "After elections, we will change Hagia Sophia's name from museum to mosque[...] We have some plans and we are going to implement these plans." Earlier this week on Wednesday on the live television, President Erdogan said — as reported by Hurriyet Daily News — "Ayasofya [Haghia Sophia] will no longer be called a museum. Its status will change. We will call it a mosque".

This Wednesday Greek Foreign Minister George Katrougalos emphasized the requirement of approval by UNESCO, saying "It [Haghia Sophia] is not only a great temple of Christendom — the largest for many centuries — it also belongs to humanity. It has been recognized by UNESCO, as part of our global cultural heritage. So any questioning of this status is not just an insult to the sentiments of Christians, it is an insult to the international community and international law", as quoted by Greek Reporter. In an interview with Sputnik News, UNESCO also said that this change would require its approval.

This Thursday the United States Commission on International Religious Freedom (USCIRF) also criticized the move, this time not only implying approval would be required, but also recommending to maintain the status of the monument as a museum. They released a statement which said, "Hagia Sophia bears profound historical and spiritual significance to Muslims and Christians alike, and its status as a museum must be maintained".

On live television Erdogan also attacked the proclamation of Golan Heights as official Israeli territory by the President of the United States Donald Trump, which was made on Monday. This proclamation contradicted the United Nations' official position on status of the territory, which belonged to Syria and was occupied by Israel.

Namely, President Erdogan said on Wednesday, "Those who remain silent when Masjid Al-Aqsa is attacked, trampled, its windows smashed, cannot tell us what to do about the status of Ayasofya[...] Unfortunately, Trump is behaving like a bully boy[...] How can you do this despite the United Nations? What are you doing? Being at the helm of a state like the U.S. does not give you such a right."

Erdogan also said earlier he might rename the monument. On the live television he said, "Constantinople will never exist again[...] The name of this area is Islambol [full of Islam] and you know that." UNESCO reportedly said a change of name of a world heritage site would required approval from the World Heritage Committee.

UNESCO, a specialized agency of the United Nations, is based in Paris.


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