Hagia Sophia
Hagia Sophia or Ayasofya, a UNESCO World Heritage Site, that was a Byzantine cathedral before being converted into a mosque which is currently a museum, is seen in Istanbul, Turkey, June 28, 2020. Image Credit: Reuters

Istanbul: Turkey's top court will deliver a critical verdict on Thursday on whether Istanbul's emblematic landmark and former church Hagia Sophia can be redesignated as a mosque, a ruling that could inflame tensions with the West.

The sixth-century edifice - a magnet for tourists worldwide with its stunning architecture - has been a museum since 1935, open to believers of all faiths.

Despite occasional protests by Islamic groups, often shouting, "Let the chains break and open Hagia Sophia" for Muslim prayers outside the UNESCO world heritage site, authorities have so far kept the building a museum.

The Hagia Sophia was first constructed as a church in the Christian Byzantine Empire in the sixth century but was converted into a mosque after the Ottoman conquest of Constantinople in 1453.

1935


The year Hagia Sophia has been a museum since.

Transforming the Hagia Sophia into a museum was a key reform of the post-Ottoman Turkish authorities under the modern republic's founder Mustafa Kemal Ataturk.

But calls for it to serve again as a mosque have raised anger among Christians and tensions between historic foes and uneasy NATO allies Turkey and Greece.

Turkey's Council of State will deliver a ruling on its status either on the same day or within two weeks, the official Anadolu news agency reported.

'High-profile symbol'

President Recep Tayyip Erdogan last month said the decision was for the court - known as the Danistay - adding: "The necessary steps will be taken following the verdict."

But Erdogan previously indicated it was time to rename the Hagia Sophia as a mosque, saying it had been a "very big mistake" to convert it into a museum, in comments before municipal elections last year.

"The Danistay decision will likely be a political one. Whatever the outcome, it will be a result of the government's deliberation," said Asli Aydintasbas, fellow at the European Council on Foreign Relations.

But she added the government will be weighing a number of issues, including relations with Greece, Europe and with the US where "religion is an important matter".

Anthony Skinner of the risk assessment firm Verisk Maplecroft said converting the Hagia Sophia into a mosque would "kill at least two birds with one stone" for Erdogan: he could cater to his Islamic and nationalist base, and sustain if not exacerbate tensions with Greece, all while seeking to cast Turkey as a formidable power.

"Erdogan could not find a more high-profile and potent symbol than Hagia Sophia to achieve all these goals at once," he told AFP.

The United States views a change in the status of the Hagia Sophia as diminishing the legacy of this remarkable building and its unsurpassed ability... to serve humanity as a much-needed bridge between those of differing faith traditions and cultures.

- Mike Pompeo, US Secretary of State

The Turkish leader has in recent years placed ever greater emphasis on the battles which resulted in the defeat of Byzantium by the Ottomans, with lavish celebrations held every year to mark the conquest.

In May, Muslim clerics recited prayers in the museum to celebrate the anniversary after the first Quran recital in 85 years inside the Hagia Sophia in 2015.

In 2016, the state religious channel broadcast a Quran recitation by a different senior Turkish cleric inside the museum on each day of the holy month of Ramadan.

Turks divided

Greece closely follows the future of Byzantine heritage in Turkey and is sensitive to the issue as it sees itself as the modern succession to Orthodox Christian Byzantium.

Greek Culture Minister Lina Mendoni, who sent a letter of protest to UNESCO last week, said the move "rekindles national and religious fanaticism" and is an attempt to "diminish the monument's global radiance".

She accused the government of using the monument "to serve internal political interests," arguing that only UNESCO had the authority to change Hagia Sophia's status.

The issue is also followed closely in Washington.

US Secretary of State Mike Pompeo on Wednesday urged Turkey to keep the Hagia Sophia as a museum, and to ensure it remains accessible to all.

"The United States views a change in the status of the Hagia Sophia as diminishing the legacy of this remarkable building and its unsurpassed ability... to serve humanity as a much-needed bridge between those of differing faith traditions and cultures."

3.8million


people visited Hagia Sophia in 2019.

But Turks are divided over its future status.

Mahmut Karagoz, an Istanbul shoemaker, 55, dreams he can one day pray under the dome of Hagia Sophia.

"It is a legacy by our Ottoman ancestors. I hope our prayers will be heard, this nostalgia must come to an end," he told AFP.

However Sena Yildiz, an economics student, believes the Hagia Sophia should retain its museum status.

"It is an important place for Muslims, but also for Christians and for all those who love history," she said.


Five things to know about the Hagia Sophia

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Hagia Sophia was added to the list of UNESCO world heritage sites in 1985.

What is the Hagia Sophia?

The edifice was first built as a church between 532 and 537 AD under emperor Justinian I and is considered the most important Byzantine structure.

After the Ottoman conquest of Constantinople (now Istanbul) in 1453, it was converted into a mosque before being opened as a museum in 1935 after the secular modern Turkish republic was established in 1923.

It was added to the list of UNESCO world heritage sites in 1985.

What is its official status now?

The Hagia Sophia remains a museum and hosts millions of tourists every year.

It was Turkey's most popular tourist attraction in 2019 with 3.8 million visitors.

There has been more religious activity inside the museum in recent years - Erdogan recited the first verse of the Quran in 2018.

Why has this become an issue now?

There has been a long legal process leading up to the expected ruling on Thursday.

The Constitutional Court in September 2018 turned down a plea by an independent heritage association to open the building up for Muslim worshipping.

The main opposition secular Republican People's Party (CHP) has accused the government of using the issue to distract voters from economic woes and other issues following the coronavirus pandemic.

"Erdogan appears to be responding to a drop in voter support, which is likely a fallout of Turkey's COVID-19-induced economic downturn," said Tugba Tanyeri Erdemir, a research associate at the University of Pittsburgh.

Erdogan's supporters praised him for getting involved with lavish celebrations this year for the anniversary of the 1453 conquest of Constantinople, encouraging him to be more proactive, said Erdemir.

As early as 1994 when he was running for mayor of Istanbul, Erdogan promised to open the building to Muslim worshippers.

What is the international community's position?

The United States and neighbouring Greece, which keeps a close eye on the state of Byzantine heritage in Istanbul, have expressed concern over a possible status change.

"We call on the Govt of #Turkey to maintain it as a @UNESCO World Heritage site & to maintain accessibility to all in its current status as a museum," Sam Brownback, the US ambassador-at-large for international religious freedom, tweeted on June 25.

After passages from the Quran were read inside the Hagia Sophia, the Greek foreign ministry said it was "an unacceptable attempt to alter the site's designation as a monument" and "also an affront to the religious sentiment of Christians" worldwide.

A ruling to change the status would hurt Turkey-Greece relations, which are already strained over migration and drilling in the eastern Mediterranean.

What would it change for visitors?

Tourists could still visit the Hagia Sophia even if it is transformed into a mosque as they are able to see the Blue Mosque nearby.

Tourists at the Blue Mosque in Istanbul
Tourists at the Blue Mosque.

But the example of the Hagia Sophia of Trabzon in northern Turkey, opened to Muslim worship in 2013, may give pause for thought.

"The number of visitors dropped significantly following its transformation into a mosque, especially because visitors could no longer appreciate the church's famous frescoes," Erdemir said, adding this had a negative impact on locals who depend on tourism revenues.