World heritage watchdog UNESCO has rebuffed Turkey’s claim that it is not “bothered” by the repurposing of Istanbul’s renowned Hagia Sophia cathedral from a museum to a mosque.
The organisation issued a statement on 14 November “in reaction to numerous inaccurate statements and errors circulating” and restated its concerns over the historic basilica’s change of status in July, following a presidential decree by Recep Tayyip Erdogan.
The “inaccurate statements” have been linked to comments made by Turkey’s Minister of Culture and Tourism, Mehmet Nuri Ersoy. At the beginning of November, Ersoy told a meeting at the Grand National Assembly of Turkey that “UNESCO is not bothered by the fact that it [Hagia Sohpia] became a mosque”.
In July, UNESCO director general, Audrey Azoulay, had expressed deep regret at Turkey’s decision, which she said had been made without prior discussion.
Azoulay said Hagia Sophia’s status as a museum reflected the “universal nature of its heritage”. UNESCO immediately began a review to examine the impact of the change on the historic Christian building, and on the nearby St. Saviour in Chora Church, which President Erdogan turned from a museum into a mosque in August. The results of the review are expected next year.
The repurposing of Hagia Sophia, the seat of Eastern Christianity for some 900 years, was greeted with “grief and dismay” by the World Council of Churches. The basilica was built as a cathedral 1,500 years ago on the site of an even earlier church, but was converted into a mosque in 1453 after the Ottoman armies conquered Constantinople. It was converted to a museum in 1935 on the orders of Kemal Ataturk, founder of Turkey’s secular republic.
Repression of religious minorities is increasing in Muslim-majority Turkey, particularly under Islamist President Erdogan, who has been outspoken about his desire to recreate the Ottoman Empire. Hostility towards Christians has worsened in recent years with the rise of Erdogan’s AKP party. Critics of the government have said that “hate speech” by the government has led to increasing attacks on minority religions.