Religious iconography in Hagia Sophia, an Istanbul landmark, would remain “untouched” for the viewing of people of all faiths, a senior Turkish official said on July 11 about the conversion of the sixth-century complex into a mosque.
In separate interviews with TRT World and the BBC, Presidential Spokesperson İbrahim Kalın answered why the former museum was “turned into a museum in the first place.”
Kalın underlined that the move to turn the Hagia Sophia, which had served as a mosque for nearly half a century, back into a Muslim place of worship had the support of all parties in Turkey.
“There is overwhelming support and consensus on this issue if you look at the political parties, the opposition parties, the republican party; they all supported this issue,” he said.
Dismissing claims as untrue that the world historical heritage would be “shadowed or destroyed” by the decision, Kalın said: “In regards to the arguments of secularism, religious tolerance and coexistence, there are more than 400 churches and synagogues open in Turkey today.”
On Twitter, Kalın stressed that all visitors would have access to the religious and cultural heritage of the Hagia Sophia, including its icons and mosaics. “Any claim to the contrary is simply false,” he said.
On July 10, a Turkish court annulled a 1934 cabinet decree, which had turned Istanbul’s Hagia Sophia into a museum. This recent verdict by the court paved the way for its use again as a mosque after 85 years.
The court ruled that the architectural gem was owned by a foundation established by Sultan Mehmet II, the conqueror of Istanbul, and presented to the community as a mosque, a status that “cannot be legally changed.”
The Hagia Sophia was used as a church for centuries under the rule of the Byzantine Empire. It was turned into a mosque following the conquest of Istanbul in 1453. In 1935, the Hagia Sophia was converted into a museum after Turkey was founded as a secular state.
President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan said the historical complex would be ready for worship by July 24 for Friday prayer.
[HH] ‘Past prejudices form Europe’s opinion on Turkey’
Kalın also told a former Swedish prime minister that Europe’s opinion on Turkey is “based on past prejudices and misplaced concerns.”
“Much of the current European opinion on Turkey is based on past prejudices and misplaced concerns,” Kalın replied to a tweet by former Swedish Prime Minister Carl Bildt after the latter commented on the Turkish court verdict allowing Hagia Sophia to be used as a mosque.
“It will serve us all to maintain a relationship of equality, mutual respect, and common interest,” Kalın added.
MHP leader: ‘It was historical responsibility’
The leader of the Nationalist Movement Party (MHP), Devlet Bahçeli, applauded the court decision on Hagia Sophia and said the use of it a “mosque uninterrupted in line with the trust of Turkey’s ancestors is a historical responsibility that must be fulfilled with commitment and loyalty.”
“A discussion that has been subject to polarization for 86 years has been resolved with a legal and political agreement,” in a statement. Bahçeli also slammed Turkey’s Nobel laureate novelist Orhan Pamuk for his criticism of the opening of the Hagia Sophia as a mosque.
“The statement of a writer manuscript,” Bahçeli said is “the unfounded whining of a Pamuk [cotton] surname person with every bit of his head wrapped in thorns.
Pamuk said the decision would take away the “pride” some Turks had in being a secular Muslim nation. “There are millions of secular Turks like me who are crying against this but their voices are not heard,” he told the BBC.
Reactions from the world
Pope Francis said on July 12 he was hurt by Turkey’s decision to make Istanbul’s Hagia Sophia museum a mosque, becoming the latest religious leader to condemn the move. “My thoughts go to Istanbul. I think of Santa Sophia and I am very pained,” he said during his weekly blessing in St. Peter’s Square.
The head of the World Council of Churches Ioan Sauca has written to Turkey’s president expressing his “grief and dismay” over Turkey’s decision to change the status of Hagia Sophia.
Russia’s Deputy Foreign Minister Alexander Grushko said July 11 Moscow regretted the decision. “The cathedral is on Turkey’s territory, but it is without question everybody’s heritage,” he told the Interfax news agency.
The United States said July 10 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. “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,” State Department spokeswoman Morgan Ortagus said.