The Greek Foreign Ministry issued a statement on Thursday objecting to Muslim prayer services held at the Hagia Sophia in Istanbul, a televised event attended by Turkish officials.
The Greek statement cited the historic importance of the Hagia Sophia as well as its significance to the Christian religion:
Hagia Sophia is a UNESCO world heritage site. The attempt to convert it into a mosque – through reading of the Koran, holding of prayers, and a number of other actions – is an affront to the international community, which needs to be duly mobilized and to react.
This is a clearly unacceptable challenge to the religious sentiments of Christians everywhere and to all those who honor humanity’s cultural heritage, and it is taking place at a time when the interfaith dialogue should be promoted rather than undermined.
We call on Turkey to conduct itself as a modern and democratic country, to protect the ecumenical nature of Hagia Sophia, and to respect the age-old tradition of this global monument.
The U.S. State Department also objected to the event in Turkey, in a much more qualified manner.
Responding to a question from a Greek reporter, spokeswoman Heather Nauert said, “The site, Hagia Sophia, is a site of extraordinary significance and we understand that, we respect that. So we call on the Turkish government to preserve the Hagia Sophia in a way that respects its complex history.”
However, Nauert said she was not specifically opposed to reopening the cathedral as a mosque.
“It’s a complex history, and we recognize that it is of great significance to other faiths, many faiths, and so we would just encourage the Turkish government to do that, to preserve it,” she said.
The Hagia Sophia was built in what was then known as Constantinople by the Byzantine emperor Justinian I in the 6th Century, well before Islam existed. It was constructed on the site of a church that had been damaged and rebuilt several times over the previous three hundred years. The church, in turn, is believed by some to have been constructed atop an ancient pagan temple that is still partially intact, somewhere beneath the Hagia Sophia as we see it today.
The four towers surrounding the central building are indeed Muslim minarets, added after the Turks conquered Constantinople in 1453. It functioned as a mosque until the father of secular Turkish government, Mustafa Kemal Ataturk, officially converted it into a museum in 1935.
Neos Kosmos points out that Muslim prayer services have been held at the Hagia Sophia since 2015 to commemorate Laylat al-Qadr, the “Night of Power” or “Night of Destiny.” It is the holiest night of the year in Islam, the night when Mohammed began writing the Koran with angelic assistance. Greece has protested this program every year since its inception.
Greek objections were particularly vehement this year because a nationalist Turkish political leader, Mustafa Destici of the Great Union Party, directly taunted Greece in a statement: “Let Greece and the world hear that Hagia Sophia is a mosque. With the blessing of Allah, religious ceremonies will soon take place and prayers will be read there again.”
Turkey’s Foreign Ministry fired back at Greece in a statement on Friday, criticizing it for not providing mosques as requested by its Muslim minority.
“The Ministry of the Foreign Affairs of Greece, instead of extending its congratulations to the Turkish people on the holy month of Ramadan and the ‘Night of Power’ (Kadir Gecesi), opted for distorting the recitation of Quran and call for prayer in Hagia Sophia,” the Turkish ministry said.
“The record of Greece in the field of freedom of religion, which is among the fundamental human rights, is well-known,” the Turkish Foreign Ministry added, sneering that without a mosque in Athens, the Greeks are in no position to talk about “interfaith dialogue.”