The government of Turkey issued a statement Wednesday saying Ankara was “shocked” at a statement from U.S. Secretary of State Mike Pompeo urging Islamist President Recep Tayyip Erdogan not to turn the Hagia Sophia into a mosque.
Built in the year 513, the Hagia Sophia is one of the world’s oldest Christian constructions, one of the most important cathedrals in the Greek Orthodox world before Muslim invaders conquered Istanbul and turned it into a mosque. Following the establishment of the Republic of Turkey under secular leader Mustafa Kemal Atatürk, the Hagia Sophia was converted into a museum, neutral territory for both religions.
Erdogan has spent much of his tenure attempting to Islamicize the Hagia Sophia, allowing a call to prayer in 2016 for the first time in 85 years and personally reading Quranic verse in the building. Turkish courts are currently evaluating the official conversion of the cathedral into a mosque and will issue a verdict within the next two weeks, the state-run Anadolu news agency reported on Thursday.
The issue of converting the former cathedral reportedly resurfaced in response to the reading of the Quran within the Hagia Sophia in late May to observe the anniversary of its seizure and the conversion of Constantinople into Istanbul.
Pompeo issued a statement Wednesday regarding the court proceedings, encouraging relevant government officials to maintain the Hagia Sophia as a museum.
“The Government of Turkey has administered the Hagia Sophia as a museum – officially recognized by UNESCO as part of the Historic Areas of Istanbul World Heritage Site – in an outstanding manner for nearly a century,” Pompeo said. “We urge the Government of Turkey to continue to maintain the Hagia Sophia as a museum, as an exemplar of its commitment to respect the faith traditions and diverse history that contributed to the Republic of Turkey, 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 — so rare in the modern world — to serve humanity as a much-needed bridge between those of differing faith traditions and cultures,” Pompeo asserted.
Hami Aksoy, a spokesman for the Turkish Foreign Ministry, responded with outrage, insisting that the Hagia Sophia, taken from the Greeks who built it in the 1400s, “is the property of Turkey, like all our cultural assets” and its administration “our internal affair as part of Turkey’s sovereign rights.”
“We are shocked at the statement made by the US State Department on Hagia Sophia,” Aksoy said. “Naturally everyone is free to express their own opinion. However, it is not for anyone to talk about our sovereign rights in the style of ‘we urge, we demand.'”
Anticipating outrage from the Christian world, Turkish Foreign Minister Mevlut Cavusoglu similarly insisted last month that the status of the Hagia Sophia was not the business of anyone outside of Turkey.
“Stressing that no one should comment on freedom of religion in Turkey, Cavusoglu said the steps taken in the last 20 years towards various minorities in the country is evident,” Yeni Safak, a rabidly pro-Erdogan newspaper, recounted. “Turkey’s top diplomat also slammed the U.S. over recently published 2019 Report on International Religious Freedom and said it is ‘tragicomical’ for the U.S. to comment on freedom of religion and human rights.”
That report, published in June, revealed that Turkey’s religious minorities felt persecuted, both by radical Muslims and by the government.
“Religious minorities again reported difficulties opening or operating houses of worship; resolving land and property disputes and legal challenges of churches whose lands the government previously expropriated; operating or opening houses of worship; and obtaining exemptions from mandatory religion classes in schools,” the report read. In addition to non-Muslim groups, Erdogan’s government has spent years persecuting members of the Hizmet Islamic movement, led by Erdogan rival and Pennsylvania cleric Fethullah Gülen. Erdogan blames Gülen, without providing evidence that the U.S. has found convincing enough for extradition, for the failed coup against him in 2016.
The report also noted Erdogan’s years-long campaign to convert the Hagia Sophia into a mosque.
Erdogan allowed a Muslim call to prayer from the cathedral – outfitted with minarets for calls to prayer after the fall of Constantinople – in 2016, a dramatic shift from the previous Atatürk policy. Despite Turkish government prohibiting it, Erdogan has repeatedly criticized Atatürk, the republic’s founder, for his staunch support of secularism and erasure of all religion from public life. Atatürk’s “Young Turks” led the genocide of Armenian, Assyrian, and Greek Christians from Turkey before establishing a secular republic devoid of Islamic influence.
That year, Erdogan also allowed Ramadan prayers to take place in the Hagia Sophia.
By 2018, Erdogan himself was reciting Islamic prayers in the Hagia Sophia – on Easter weekend, the holiest holiday in Christianity.
Last year, Erdogan said in a television interview that he may “revert” the status of the Hagia Sophia from museum to mosque, insisting that tourists would still be able to visit it the same way they are able to visit other Istanbul mosques.