Photo Credit: Arild Vågen via Wikimedia
Hagia Sophia

Turkey’s President Recep Tayyip Erdogan announced Saturday that the Turkish government will reverse the status of an internationally treasured site and transform it into a mosque.

In remarks broadcast live after issuing a presidential decree reversing the status of Istanbul’s Hagia Sophia museum, and establishing it once more as a mosque, Erdogan announced the iconic UNESCO World Heritage site would be open for Islamic worship on July 24.

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The United Nations Education, Scientific and Cultural Organization (UNESCO) warned Turkey on Friday against converting the structure into a mosque, which has legal ramifications. Greece and Russia have both expressed outrage over the Turkish court’s decision.

“This inscription entails a number of commitments and legal obligations,” a UNESCO spokesperson told AFP. “A state must ensure that no modification affects the exceptional universal value of the property inscribed on its territory.”

According to UNESCO regulations, any modification to a listed site requires prior notification to UNESCO and possibly examination by its World Heritage Committee. Turkey’s Erdogan was clearly not concerned by any of this.

Hagia Sophia was built as a cathedral in the sixth century CE during the Christian Byzantine Empire but was converted into an imperial mosque after the Ottoman conquest of Constantinople – today, Istanbul — in 1453. It was converted to a museum during the secularizing rule of Mustafa Kemal Ataturk, founder of modern-day Turkey, in 1935.

Any Objection Seen as Breach of Sovereignty
“As with all other mosques, the doors of Hagia Sophia will be open to all, including Turkish citizens and tourists. We are planning to open Hagia Sophia Mosque for worship on July 24. Hagia Sophia is under Turkish jurisdiction. Any objection to our judiciary’s decision will be perceived as a breach of our sovereignty,” Erdogan said.

Turkey’s Supreme Court annulled the 1935 government decree by Ataturk that had established the church-turned-mosque as a museum. “The Cabinet decision in 1934 that ended its use as a mosque and defined it as a museum did not comply with laws,” the court said in its ruling, according to a report published by Turkey’s Daily Sabah.

Erdogan’s decree transfers Hagia Sophia to the country’s Presidency of Religious Affairs. Speaking against the backdrop of a copy of Ottoman Sultan Mehmed II’s decree which declared Hagia Sophia as part of his foundation, Erdoğan said it was a 567-year-old right to reclaim Hagia Sophia as a mosque and reminded the sultan’s decree which contained a curse for those who might convert Hagia Sophia to something else than mosque.

On to Jerusalem
Erdogan also spoke of his regret over the demise of the Ottoman Empire, and his intent to help the Palestinian Authority conquer at least part of Jerusalem.

“Today, we have 435 churches and synagogues open for worship. Despite this, we saw the contrary elsewhere. Few buildings our ancestors built in Eastern Europe and Balkans stand today,” he said.

“Resurrection of Hagia Sophia is a harbinger of al-Aqsa Mosque’s liberation,” he added.

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