US 'disappointed' by Turkey's restoration of Hagia Sophia's mosque status

People praying outside the Hagia Sophia in Istanbul on Friday. The monument was constructed as a cathedral, converted into a mosque and later preserved as a museum, but its status as a museum has since been revoked. PHOTO: AGENCE FRANCE-PRESSE
People praying outside the Hagia Sophia in Istanbul on Friday. The monument was constructed as a cathedral, converted into a mosque and later preserved as a museum, but its status as a museum has since been revoked. PHOTO: AGENCE FRANCE-PRESSE

WASHINGTON • 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.

"We are disappointed by the decision by the government of Turkey to change the status of the Hagia Sophia," State Department spokesman 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.

Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan, who has chipped away at the Muslim-majority country's secularism, announced Muslim prayers for July 24 at the Unesco World Heritage site.

The move was condemned by Greece, which said it would have repercussions not only on relations between the two countries, but also on Turkey's ties with the European Union.

"Greece condemns in the most intense manner the decision of Turkey to convert Hagia Sophia into a mosque.

"This is a choice which offends all those who also recognise the monument as a World Heritage Site. And of course it does not only affect relations between Turkey and Greece, but also its relations with the European Union," Greek Prime Minister Kyriakos Mitsotakis' office said.

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.

Mr 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.

Mr 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 recently, Mr 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".

AGENCE FRANCE-PRESSE, REUTERS

 
 
A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Sunday Times on July 12, 2020, with the headline 'US 'disappointed' by Turkey's restoration of Hagia Sophia's mosque status'. Subscribe