U.S. urges Turkey to let Hagia Sophia remain a museum

Cheryl Sanders
July 3, 2020

A Turkish court on Thursday heard a case aimed at converting the Hagia Sophia museum in Istanbul back into a mosque and will announce its verdict within 15 days, a lawyer said, on an issue which has drawn global expressions of concern.

A Turkish court on Thursday heard a petition seeking to convert the massive sixth century building, originally built as a Christian cathedral and today one of Turkey's most visited tourist sites, back into a mosque.

The secretary's warning comes after U.S. envoy for religious freedom Sam Brownback called on Turkey last week to maintain the Hagia Sophia as a UNESCO World Heritage site.

A decision is expected within two weeks.

Analysts believe that Erdogan - a populist, polarizing leader who in almost two decades in office has frequently blamed Turkey's secular elites for the country's problems - is using the debate to consolidate his conservative base and to distract attention from Turkey's substantial economic woes.

The Ottomans built minarets alongside the vast domed structure, while inside they added huge calligraphic panels bearing the Arabic names of the early Muslim caliphs alongside the monument's ancient Christian iconography.

The Turkish government made a decision to turn the mosque into a museum in 1934 the early years of the modern secular Turkish state founded by Mustafa Kemal Ataturk.

Islamist groups, however, strongly object to its status as a museum.

The lawsuit was launched by a Turkish religious association that has long challenged Hagia Sophia's status as a museum.

The Hagia Sophia was used as a church for 916 years. This year, he oversaw by video conference the recital of the "prayer of conquest" on the anniversary of the Ottoman conquest.

In 1453, it was converted into a mosque by Ottoman Sultan Mehmet II when the empire conquered Istanbul.

The UNESCO world heritage site will be reopened for worship or will continue to be used as a museum, according to the decision of the court which will deliver a written verdict within 15 days.

Earlier on Wednesday, Pompeo said that the museum status should be maintained "as an exemplar of [Turkey's] commitment to respect the faith traditions and diverse history that contributed to the Republic of Turkey, and to ensure it remains accessible to all".

Hours later, Turkish Foreign Ministry spokesman Hami Aksoy said the issue was a domestic one.

"I think he feels the pressure of popular support dwindling and therefore he wants to use issues that he hopes will remobilise his right-wing base around nativist, populist, anti-elitist topics, [so] enter Hagia Sophia", said Soner Cagaptay, director of the Turkey Research Programme at the Washington Institute.

Ankara has maintained that the possible conversion of Hagia Sophia to a mosque is its internal matter.

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