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Turkey to decide on whether to redesignate iconic Hagia Sophia as a mosque

Issued on: 02/07/2020 – 06:09Modified: 02/07/2020 – 06:09

Turkey's top court will deliver a critical verdict Thursday on whether Istanbul's emblematic landmark and former church Hagia Sophia can be redesignated as a mosque, a ruling which could inflame tensions with the West.

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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.

Despite occasional protests by Islamic groups, often shouting, "Let the chains break and open Hagia Sophia" for Muslim prayers outside the UNESCO world heritage site, authorities have so far kept the building a museum.

The Hagia Sophia was first constructed as a church in the Christian Byzantine Empire in the sixth century but was converted into a mosque after the Ottoman conquest of Constantinople in 1453.

Transforming the Hagia Sophia into a museum was a key reform of the post-Ottoman Turkish authorities under the modern republic's founder Mustafa Kemal Ataturk.

But calls for it to serve again as a mosque have raised anger among Christians and tensions between historic foes and uneasy NATO allies Turkey and Greece.

Turkey's Council of State will deliver a ruling on its status either on the same day or within two weeks, the official Anadolu news agency reported.

'High-profile symbol'

President Recep Tayyip Erdogan last month said the decision was for the court — known as the Danistay — adding: "The necessary steps will be taken following the verdict."

But Erdogan previously indicated it was time to rename the Hagia Sophia as a mosque, saying it had been a "very big mistake" to convert it into a museum, in comments before municipal elections last year.

"The Danistay decision will likely be a political one. Whatever the outcome, it will be a result of the government's deliberation," said Asli Aydintasbas, fellow at the European Council on Foreign Relations.

But she added the government will be weighing a number of issues, including relations with Greece, Europe and with the US where "religion is an important matter".

Anthony Skinner of the risk assessment firm Verisk Maplecroft said converting the Hagia Sophia into a mosque would "kill at least two birds with one stone" for Erdogan: he could cater to his Islamic and nationalist base, and sustain if not exacerbate tensions with Greece, all while seeking to cast Turkey as a formidable power.

"Erdogan could not find a more high-profile and potent symbol than Hagia Sophia to achieve all these goals at once," he told AFP.

The Turkish leader has in recent years placed ever greater emphasis on the battles which resulted in the defeat of Byzantium by the Ottomans, with lavish celebrations held every year to mark the conquest.

In May, Muslim clerics recited prayers in the museum to celebrate the anniversary after the first Koran recital in 85 years inside the Hagia Sophia in 2015.

In 2016, the state religious channel broadcast a Koran recitation by a different senior Turkish cleric inside the museum on each day of the holy month of Ramadan.

Turks divided

Greece closely follows the future of Byzantine heritage in Turkey and is sensitive to the issue as it sees itself as the modern succession to Orthodox Christian Byzantium.

Greek Culture Minister Lina MendonRead More – Source