Turkey’s President Recep Tayip Erdogan has ordered the Hagia Sophia, originally constructed as a cathedral, to be turned into a mosque in a decision that has created a rift between Christians and Islamists, numerous sources reported.
In a move to stoke his nationalist base, Erdogan issued a presidential decree paving the way for the UNESCO World Heritage site that is accessible to all to be turned into a mosque, CNN reported.
A Turkish court annulled a 1934 presidential decree that made it into a museum after several countries, including the U.S. and Greece, had condemned or advised against the change. Greece said Turkey risked opening up a “huge emotional chasm” with Christian countries if it continued pushing for the building to be turned into a mosque, while U.S. Secretary of State Mike Pomepo urged Turkey to maintain Hagia Sophia as a museum.
Located in Istanbul, Hagia Sophia was built in 532 in Constantinople, the capital of the Byzantine Empire. It was the seat of the Orthodox patriarch of the capital, and was briefly a Catholic cathedral in the 13th century following the Fourth Crusade.
It wasn’t until 1453 that the Ottoman Empire captured Constantinople and renamed the city Istanbul, and would soon remove all Orthodox symbols inside the church. After the defeat of the Ottoman Empire in World War I, secular Turkey was later founded by Mustafa Kemal Ataturk, who ordered Hagia Sophia to be turned into a museum, according to the BBC.
Erdogan has wielded Hagia Sophia as a way to revive his support for the campaign by nationalist and conservative groups to turn the museum into a mosque. Analysts have interpreted the move as a tactic to divert attention from Turkey’s economic downturn caused by the pandemic, according to Financial Times.
The decision is likely to inflame further geopolitical tensions, especially among Christians and Turkey.
“A threat against Hagia Sophia is a threat to . . . our spirituality and history,” said Patriarch Kirill, the leader of Russia’s Orthodox Church, the world’s largest by followers, according to Financial Times.
“What could happen to Hagia Sophia will cause deep pain among the Russian people.”
Lina Mendoni, Greece’s culture minister, accused Turkey of reviving “fanatical nationalist and religious sentiment” through the action. The head of the Eastern Orthodox Church has also criticized the proposal and said that Christians would be disappointed if Hagia Sophia became a mosque, and the move would “fracture” East and West, Reuters reported.