Turkey Removing Christian Relics from Hagia Sophia

ISTANBUL, TURKEY - FEBRUARY 11: The interior of the Hagia Sophia Museum is seen on February 11, 2016 in Istanbul, Turkey. The Hagia Sophia (Ayasofya) Museum is one of the most visited tourist attractions in Turkey, with more than 3 million visitors per year. Constructed in 537 the museum originally …
Chris McGrath/Getty Images

Turkey’s Culture and Tourism Ministry says it is setting up “a new museum” to house the Hagia Sophia’s “portable icons and Holy relics” indicating that the former cathedral’s Christian relics and iconography will be removed from the site, the Greek City Times reported Friday.

On July 10, Turkey’s Islamist President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan announced that Istanbul’s Hagia Sophia museum would be formally converted into a mosque. Built as a cathedral in 537 A.D., the Hagia Sophia functioned as the seat of the Greek Orthodox Church for centuries until the 1453 Ottoman conquest of Constantinople, which saw the site converted into a mosque. In 1934, Turkey converted the complex into a secular museum. A designated UNESCO world heritage site, the historic structure draws millions of tourists each year.

Turkish Culture and Tourism Minister Mehmet Nuri Ersoy said on Thursday that Turkey’s “Land Registry building located in Sultanahmet Square will exhibit [the Hagia Sophia’s] portable icons and Holy relics” after they are removed from the site.

Religious relics include the mortal remains of a saint and any object the saint has come into contact with.

Ersoy said his ministry would remove the Hagia Sophia’s Christian relics at the signing of a cooperation protocol between Turkey’s Culture and Tourism Ministry and its Directorate of Religious Affairs (Diyanet) on July 16.

“Following the decision to open the Hagia Sophia for Muslim worship, a task division was made between the Culture and Tourism Ministry and the Diyanet,” Turkey’s Hürriyet Daily News reported.

“The [new special administrative] board, which will include representatives from the ministry and the directorate, will carry out activities ranging from determining the preservation interventions related to the mosque, to the physical maintenance, to strengthen the earthquake risk, and to make arrangements suitable for the access of visitors,” the newspaper wrote.

The new board claims that “the historical, cultural, social, spiritual, and aesthetic values of the Hagia Sophia Mosque will be protected based on internationally and nationally accepted conservation legislation and principles.”

“There will not be any physical intervention that will harm the superior universal values, originality, and integrity of the Hagia Sophia, including its concrete and intangible heritage,” the joint ministry division said, without addressing the removal of holy Christians relics.

When announcing the Hagia Sophia’s conversion to a mosque last Friday, Erdoğan declared the site open to Muslim worship starting July 24.

On Tuesday, the Diyanet announced it would cover or obscure the Hagia Sophia’s Christian iconography — including images of Jesus and the Virgin Mary — during times of Muslim prayer, which in Islam means five times a day. Muslim iconoclasm discourages the visual depiction of sentient beings, including human religious figures, in mosques.

“Paintings, frescoes in Hagia Sophia are no obstacle to praying in there. In order for Muslims to pray with serenity, these frescoes should be covered with curtains or darkened with the help of black lights,” the Diyanet said in a statement. “The icons should be curtained and shaded through appropriate means during prayer times.”

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