Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan is once again exploring ways to convert the Hagia Sophia Museum in Istanbul into a mosque, Kurdish news agency Rudaw reported on Tuesday.
Built in 537 A.D. during the Christian Byzantine Empire, the Hagia Sophia served as the seat of the Greek Orthodox Church for centuries. Following the Ottoman conquest of Constantinople in 1453, the site was converted into an imperial mosque. In 1935, Turkey’s secular, single-party rule converted the structure into a museum, which it remains today. The historic complex has been designated a UNESCO world heritage site.
Erdogan and his Islamist-ruling Justice and Development Party (AKP) have regularly suggested the Hagia Sophia be reconverted into a mosque. The president’s most recent proposal that the site should again be used as an Islamic place of worship has energized the president’s Islamist base, according to the report.
“Prayers can be performed … [and] Hagia Sophia can continue to be visited by tourists as a mosque,” Erdogan reportedly told AKP leaders at a June 3 executive board meeting for the ruling party, according to Turkish newspaper Hürriyet. At the meeting, Erdogan also instructed his aides to “research ways” that the government could “legally declare” the museum to be used as a religious site.
For years, Erdogan has supported a steady campaign to reconvert the Hagia Sophia into a site of Islamic worship. In 2015, a Muslim cleric recited the Quran, Islam’s holiest book, inside the Hagia Sophia for the first time in 85 years. In subsequent years, Turkey’s powerful Directorate of Religious Affairs began hosting religious readings in the complex during the Islamic holy month of Ramadan, and in 2018 Erdogan himself recited the Islamic call to prayer inside the building.
On May 29, authorities in Istanbul hosted public celebrations to commemorate the 567th anniversary of the Ottoman conquest of Constantinople by Sultan Mehmed II, who subsequently renamed the ancient city Istanbul. President Erdogan presided over some of the festivities, including a fireworks display over the Bosporus waterway, Rudaw reported.
During the celebrations, a Muslim cleric recited a segment of the Quran known as the “prayer of conquest” inside the Hagia Sophia, stirring up a storm of controversy. According to Rudaw, critics accused the Turkish government of once again using Islam to galvanize its support base of religious conservatives. Some political opponents say the president does this to distract from other domestic issues, such as the economy.
News last week that Erdogan was again proposing the Hagia Sophia be reconverted into a mosque has also reignited diplomatic tensions between Turkey and Greece, which has consistently objected to the Turkish government’s conversion of the 1400-year-old former Greek Orthodox cathedral into an Islamic place of worship.
On Monday, Erdogan rebuked Greece for balking at the idea that the Hagia Sophia could again become a site of Islamic worship:
They’re saying, ‘Don’t turn Hagia Sophia into a mosque.’ Do you [Greece] rule Turkey, or do we rule Turkey? Greece is not the one administrating this land, so it should avoid making such remarks. If Greece does not know its place, Turkey knows how to answer.
On Tuesday, Turkish opposition leader Mustafa Destici, leader of the Grand Unity Party (BBP), supported Erdogan’s stance on the Hagia Sophia. He explained to reporters in parliament that reconverting the historic site into a mosque was a matter of Turkish sovereignty.
“Hagia Sophia is [a] symbol of conquest. In our opinion, the reopening of Hagia Sophia, far from being just a necessity and laying claim to a relic of conquest, is an issue of sovereignty and independence,” Destici said.