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Erdogan rebuffs criticism over Hagia Sophia conversion to mosque

By AFP - Jul 11,2020 - Last updated at Jul 11,2020

People, some wearing face masks, pray outside the Hagia Sophia museum in Istanbul on Friday as they gather to celebrate after a top Turkish court revoked the sixth-century Hagia Sophia's status as a museum, clearing the way for it to be turned back into a mosque (AFP photo)

ISTANBUL — President Recep Tayyip Erdogan on Saturday rejected worldwide condemnation over Turkey's decision to convert the Byzantine-era monument Hagia Sophia back into a mosque, saying it represented his country's will to use its "sovereign rights".

Erdogan, who is accused by critics of chipping away at the Muslim-majority country's secular pillars, announced Friday that Muslim prayers would begin on July 24 at the UNESCO World Heritage site.

In the past, he has repeatedly called for the stunning building to be renamed as a mosque.

"Those who do not take a step against Islamophobia in their own countries ... attack Turkey's will to use its sovereign rights," Erdogan said during a ceremony he attended via video-conference.

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 by a top court of a 1934 Cabinet decision under modern Turkey's secularising founder Mustafa Kemal Ataturk to preserve the church-turned-mosque as a museum.

"We made this decision not looking at what others say but looking what our right is and what our nation wants, just like what we have done in Syria, in Libya and elsewhere," the Turkish leader said Saturday.

‘A blow to global Christianity’ 


Erdogan went ahead with the plan despite an open appeal from the NATO ally the United States as well as Russia, with which Ankara has forged close relations in recent years.

Greece swiftly condemned the move as a provocation, France deplored it while the United States also expressed disappointment.

Russia’s Deputy Foreign Minister Alexander Grushko, said: “We regret” the decision, speaking to Interfax news agency on Saturday.

“The cathedral is on Turkey’s territory, but it is without question everybody’s heritage,” he said.

“We would like to hope that [Turkey] will fully honour all of the commitments having to do with the World Heritage status of the cathedral, in terms of its management, protection and access.”

The influential bishop Hilarion, who heads the Russian Orthodox Church’s department for external church relations, expressed sorrow, speaking to state TV Rossiya24 aired late Friday.

“We had hoped till the end that Turkish leadership would overturn the decision and it brings great sorrow and great pain that the decision was taken.

“It is a blow to global Christianity... For us [Hagia Sophia] remains a cathedral dedicated to the Saviour.”

But Ozgur Unluhisarcikli, Ankara director of the German Marshall Fund, told AFP the move would win hearts and minds as most Turks “would favour such a decision for religious or nationalist sentiments”.

“This is a debate president Erdogan cannot lose and the opposition cannot win. As a matter of fact, this issue also has the potential to disunite the opposition parties.”


‘It is closed’


After Friday’s decision, hundreds gathered outside the iconic building and performed evening prayers.

On Saturday, police had put up barriers around the Hagia Sophia.

“We wanted to come and visit Istanbul and the Hagia Sophia museum but unfortunately we realised that from today it is closed,” said Renato Daleo, tourist from Italy.

Ksennia Bessonova, a Russian living in Istanbul flanked by her 16-month-old daughter and her husband, said they had also wanted to visit. “It was our little dream because since our daughter was born we were not able to come and here we go,” she said.

She hoped the authorities would not change anything inside.

“From what our friends and family were telling us it was something special and we wanted to feel the same. At the moment I am not sure what to expect but I feel sad in a way.”

On Friday, Erdogan gave assurances that the Hagia Sophia would be open to all visitors, including non-Muslims.

“The Hagia Sophia’s doors will remain open to visitors from all around the world,” his press aide, Fahrettin Altun tweeted Saturday.

“People of all religious denominations are welcome and encouraged to visit it — just as they have been able to visit other mosques, including the Blue Mosque.”

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