Top Turkey court to deliver ruling on Hagia Sophia

Top Turkey court to deliver ruling on Hagia Sophia
Calls for the Hagia Sophia to serve again as a mosque have raised tensions between historic foes and uneasy NATO allies Turkey and Greece.
4 min read
Turkey's top court is due to deliver a verdict on the Hagia Sophia's status [AFP/Getty]

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

The sixth-century edifice - a magnet for tourists worldwide with its stunning architecture - was originally built as a Christian cathedral in the sixth century.

It was converted into a mosque after the Ottoman conquest of Constantinople - present-day Istanbul in 1453.

Transforming the Hagia Sophia into a museum in 1935 was a key reform of the post-Ottoman Turkish authorities under the modern republic's founder Mustafa Kemal Ataturk.

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

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

Turkey's Council of State will deliver a ruling on The Hagia Sophia's status either on Thursday 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 redesignate 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 and 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 Turkish leader has in recent years placed ever greater emphasis on the battles which resulted in the defeat of the Byzantine Empire 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.

In 2015, the first Quran recital in 85 years took place in the Hagia Sophia and in 2016, the state religious channel broadcast a Quran recitation by Turkish clerics 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 successor to the Orthodox Christian Byzantine Empire.

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

She accused the Turkish 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," he said.

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.

Read more: Why Saudi Arabia's revisionist erasure of its Ottoman history will backfire

"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.

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