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Explained: Controversy revolving around Turkey’s Hagia Sophia – Times of India

NEW DELHI: A Turkish court on Friday annulled the 1934 government decree of converting Istanbul’s Hagia Sophia into a museum, ruling it was unlawful, paving the way for the building’s conversion back into mosque despite international warnings against such a move.
The ruling was made by the Council of State, Turkey‘s top administrative court.
Some people believed that the 1934 conversion of the Hagia Sophia to a museum was unlawful. The sixth-century edifice — a magnet for tourists worldwide with its stunning architecture — has been a museum since 1935, open to believers of all faiths.
What is Hagia Sophia?
Hagia Sophia, or ‘Divine Wisdom’ in Greek, was completed in 537 by Byzantine emperor Justinian.
The Hagia Sophia, domed building that sits in Istanbul’s Fatih district on the west bank of the Bosporus, was originally a cathedral before becoming a mosque and then a museum in the 1930s.
Hagia Sophia is nearly 1,500 years old and served as one of the most exalted seats of Christian and then Muslim worship in the world, meaning that any change to its status will have a profound impact on followers of both faiths.
Because of its 1,500-year history, the Hagia Sophia holds immense religious, spiritual and political significance for groups inside and outside Turkey.
It is also a UNESCO World Heritage Site.
The Hagia Sophia as a museum hosts millions of tourists every year. It was Turkey’s most popular tourist attraction in 2019 with 3.8 million visitors.
The court case
A Turkish association – the Association for the Protection of Historic Monuments and the Environment – committed to making Hagia Sophia a mosque again has pressed Turkish courts several times in the last 15 years to annul Ataturk‘s decree.
In the latest campaign, it told Turkey’s top court that Ataturk’s government did not have the right to overrule the wishes of Sultan Mehmet – even suggesting that the president’s signature on the document was forged.
That argument was based on a discrepancy in Ataturk’s signature on the edict, passed around the same time that he assumed his surname, from his signature on subsequent documents.
They were pressing to annul the 1934 decision by the Council of Ministers, led by secular Turkey’s founder Mustafa Kemal Ataturk, that turned the historic structure into a museum.
What is the controversy all about?
The 6th-century building is at the centre of a heated debate between nationalist, conservative and religious groups who are pressing for it to be reconverted back into a mosque.
Hagia Sophia was first constructed as a cathedral in the Christian Byzantine Empire in the sixth century but was converted into a mosque after the Ottoman conquest of Constantinople in 1453. Transforming it into a museum was a key reform of the post-Ottoman authorities under the modern republic’s founder Mustafa Kemal Ataturk.
Four minarets were added to the terracotta-hued structure with cascading domes and the building was turned into an imperial mosque following the 1453 Ottoman conquest of Constantinople – the city that is now Istanbul.
The building opened its doors as a museum in 1935, a year after the Council of Ministers’ decision.
But calls for it to serve again as a mosque have sparked anger among Christians and tensions between historic foes and uneasy NATO allies Turkey and Greece.
From a museum to a mosque
Since 2005, there have been several attempts to change the building’s status from a museum to a mosque. In 2018, the Constitutional Court rejected one application.
Islamist groups, however, regard the symbolic structure as a legacy of Ottoman Sultan Mehmet the Conqueror and strongly object to its status as a museum.
Large crowds gathered outside Hagia Sophia on the May 31 anniversary of the city’s conquest to pray and demand that it be restored as a place of Muslim worship.
Erdogan’s stand on Hagia Sophia
President Recep Tayyip Erdogan, who has championed Islam and religious observance during his 17-year rule, supported the Hagia Sophia campaign, saying Muslims should be able to pray there again and raised the issue – which is popular with many pious AKP-voting Turks – during local elections last year.
He previously spoke about possibly changing Hagia Sophia’s status to a mosque but has said his government would await the Council of State’s decision.
Analysts believe that Erdogan – a populist, polarizing leader who in nearly two decades in office has frequently blamed Turkey’s secular elites for the country’s problems – is using the Hagia Sophia debate to consolidate his conservative base and to distract attention from Turkey’s substantial economic woes.
Turkish pollster Metropoll found that 44% of respondents believe Hagia Sophia was put on the agenda to divert voters’ attention from Turkey’s economic woes.
The pro-government Hurriyet newspaper reported last month that Erdogan had already ordered the status be changed, but that tourists should still be able to visit Hagia Sophia as a mosque and the issue would be handled sensitively.
Turks divided over its status
Istanbul shoemaker Mahmut Karagoz, 55, said he dreams he can one day pray under the dome of Hagia Sophia.
“It is a legacy by our Ottoman ancestors. I hope our prayers will be heard, this nostalgia must come to an end,” he told AFP.
However, economics student Sena Yildiz said she believes Hagia Sophia should stay as a museum.
“It is an important place for Muslims, but also for Christians and for all those who love history,” she said.
Criticism from the West and Turkey’s neighbours
Outside Turkey, the prospect of Hagia Sophia’s change has raised alarm.
* Ecumenical Patriarch Bartholomew, spiritual head of 300 million Orthodox Christians, said altering the status of Hagia Sophia would fracture Eastern and Western worlds. Russia’s Orthodox church said turning it into a mosque was unacceptable.
* US Secretary of State Mike Pompeo said any change would diminish its ability “to serve humanity as a much-needed bridge between those of differing faith traditions and cultures”.
* Neighbouring Greece, an overwhelmingly Orthodox country, said Turkey risked opening up a “huge emotional chasm” with Christian countries if it converts a building which was central to the Greek-speaking Byzantine empire and Orthodox church.
* Russian officials and the Orthodox church on Monday urged caution over calls in Turkey to alter the status of the Hagia Sophia, the historic former cathedral in Istanbul. The head of Russia’s Orthodox Church Patriarch Kirill said he was “deeply concerned” by the moves, describing Hagia Sophia as “one of the greatest monuments of Christian culture”.
* Turkey has criticised what it says is foreign interference. “This is a matter of national sovereignty,” Turkish foreign minister Mevlut Cavusoglu said. “What is important is what the Turkish people want.”
Will it still remain open to tourists?
Turkish media reports say the government was considering the possibility of keeping Hagia Sophia open to tourists even if it were turned into a mosque.
That status would be similar to Istanbul’s Blue Mosque, which sits right across from Hagia Sophia and functions both as a house of worship and a tourist spot.
Hurriyet and other media have reported that Hagia Sophia could be reconverted into a mosque by a public holiday on July 15, when the country marks the fourth anniversary of the foiling of an attempted coup.
Changes may be reviewed: UNESCO
UNESCO must be notified of any change in the status of Istanbul’s sixth-century Hagia Sophia museum and the changes may have to be reviewed by its World Heritage committee, the United Nation’s cultural body said.
UNESCO told Reuters that the Hagia Sophia was on its list of World Heritage Sites as a museum, and as such had certain commitments and legal obligations.
UNESCO said it had expressed its concerns to Turkish authorities in several letters and conveyed the message to Turkey’s ambassador to the institution.


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