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The New Arab Staff & Agencies

US 'disappointed' by Turkey's decision on iconic Hagia Sophia

Numerous attempts have been made to transform the museum into a mosque [Getty]

Date of publication: 11 July, 2020

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Turkey's decision to transform the Byzantine-era Hagia Sophia into a mosque was 'disappointed' the United States said on Friday.
The United States said it was "disappointed" by Turkey's decision to turn the Byzantine-era monument Hagia Sophia back into a mosque and urged equal access for all visitors on Friday.

"We are disappointed by the decision by the government of Turkey to change the status of the Hagia Sophia," State Department spokeswoman Morgan Ortagus said.

"We understand the Turkish government remains committed to maintaining access to the Hagia Sophia for all visitors, and look forward to hearing its plans for continued stewardship of the Hagia Sophia to ensure it remains accessible without impediment for all," she said.

The remarks came after Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan, who has chipped away at the Muslim-majority country's secularism, announced Muslim prayers on July 24 at the UNESCO World Heritage site.

A magnet for tourists worldwide, the Hagia Sophia was first constructed as a cathedral in the Christian Byzantine Empire but was converted into a mosque after the Ottoman conquest of Constantinople in 1453. 

Erdogan's announcement came after the cancellation of a decision under modern Turkey's secularising founder Mustafa Kemal Ataturk to preserve the church-turned-mosque as a museum.

Erdogan went ahead despite an open appeal to the NATO ally by US Secretary of State Mike Pompeo, an evangelical Christian who frequently speaks about religious freedom.

In a statement last week, Pompeo called the museum status an "exemplar" of Turkey's "commitment to respect the faith traditions and diverse history" of the country and said a change risked "diminishing the legacy of this remarkable building."

Democratic presidential candidate Joe Biden also on Friday said he deeply regretted Turkey's decision.

Biden called on Erdogan to reverse it "and instead keep this treasured place in its current status as a museum, ensuring equal access for all".

'Let the chains break'

Hagia Sophia has been a museum since 1935 and open to believers of all faiths.

Transforming it from a mosque was a key reform under the new republic born out of the ashes of the Ottoman Empire.

The landmark ruling will inflame tensions not just with the West and its historic foe Greece but also Russia, with which Erdogan has forged an increasingly close partnership in recent years.

The UN's cultural agency UNESCO earlier Friday warned Turkey against converting Hagia Sophia  into a mosque, urging dialogue before any decision was taken.

Ahead of the court decision, Justice Minister Abdulhamit Gul shared a picture of Hagia Sophia on his official Twitter account, with a message: "Have a good Friday."

Finance Minister Berat Albayrak, Erdogan's son-in-law, tweeted that Hagia Sophia would be reopened to Muslim worship "sooner or later", referring to a quote from Turkish poet Necip Fazil Kisakurek. 

Read more: Hagia Sophia conversion plan comes at testing times for Turkey's Erdogan

The Council of State had on July 2 debated a case brought by a Turkish group - the Association for the Protection of Historic Monuments and the Environment, which demanded Hagia Sophia be reopened for Muslim prayers.

Since 2005, there have been several attempts to change the building's status. In 2018, the Constitutional Court rejected one application.

Despite occasional protests outside the site by Islamic groups, often shouting, "Let the chains break and open Hagia Sophia" for Muslim prayers, authorities had until now kept the building as a museum.

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