Recently, the government of Turkey has decided to convert Istanbul’s iconic Hagia Sophia Museum into a mosque.
What is Hagia Sophia?
- Hagia Sophia was built in the sixth century by the Byzantine Emperor Justinian, and was a Christian place of worship for nearly 1,000 years before what was then known as Constantinople was conquered by the Ottoman Turks after a bloody siege in 1453.
- It is a historic house of worship located in Istanbul.
- It is revered by Christians and Muslims alike.
- In 1934, in the early days of the modern secular Turkish state under Mustafa Kemal Ataturk, it became a museum.
- There have been calls for long from Islamist groups and nationalists in the country to convert the Hagia Sophia back into a mosque.
- It is a UNESO world heritage site.
- The 1,500-year-old structure has been listed as a UNESCO’S World Heritage site. A World Heritage Site is a place that is listed by UNESCO as of special cultural or physical significance.
- In 2019, Turkey’s President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan had said it he would turn the structure back into a mosque again.
What is the controversy about?
- When Erdogan entered politics three decades ago in Turkey, he objected to the calls to convert Hagia Sophia into a mosque.
- But his rhetoric changed in 2019 during municipal elections in Istanbul that he ended up losing.
- Erdogan’s plans for the conversion of the Hagia Sophia are closely connected with his attempts to score political points.
Why is Greece objecting to this conversion?
- The controversy about the Hagia Sophia comes at a time when there are diplomatic tensions between Turkey and Greece over other issues.
- In May 2020, Greece objected to the reading of passages from the Quran inside the Hagia Sophia.
- Greece’s Foreign Ministry had issued a statement saying this move was a violation of UNESCO’s ‘Convention Concerning the Protection of the World Cultural and Natural Heritage’.
- Greece had said the Hagia Sophia had been designated a museum of world cultural heritage.
What is Turkey’s response?
- Turning the site into a mosque has hit at the heart of Turkey’s religious-secular divide. Nationalist and conservative groups in Turkey have long yearned to hold prayers at Hagia Sophia, which they regard as part of the Muslim Ottoman legacy.
- Others believe it should remain a museum, as a symbol of Christian and Muslim solidarity.
- Discussions on social media have exposed the sensitivity of the debate, with many on both sides criticising the move as a political tactic by Mr Erdogan to push his right-wing ideologies.
- Turkey responded by saying that Greece’s objections to the reading of passages from the Quran were indicative of its intolerant psychology.
- Some within Turkey’s political circles view the issue of Hagia Sophia as a domestic matter.
- So, they do not seem to welcome the interference of international players.
What is next?
- Erdogan does not need the courts to decide on the fate of the Hagia.
- The courts believe that legal rulings will add legitimacy to his proposals.
- There has been opposition to these plans within Turkey, as the religious minorities do not wish to be involved in such a polarising subject.
- Greece had appealed to UNESCO, objecting to Turkey’s moves on grounds that the conversion would violate international conventions.
- The UNESCO too has denounced Turkey’s plans.