Unesco, Christian leaders lament Hagia Sophia transformation

World | 11 Jul 2020 12:27 pm

In Paris, the United Nations cultural body, UNESCO, said Hagia Sophia is part of the Historic Areas of Istanbul, a property inscribed on UNESCO’s World Heritage List as a museum.

“States have an obligation to ensure that modifications do not affect the `outstanding universal value’ of inscribed sites on their territories,” Director-General Audrey Azoulay said.

The Istanbul-based Ecumenical Patriarch Bartholomew I, considered the spiritual leader of the world’s Orthodox Christians, warned last month that the building’s conversion into a mosque “will turn millions of Christians across the world against Islam.”

On Friday, Archbishop Elpidophoros of America said the decision runs counter to the vision of secular Turkey’s founder, Mustafa Kemal Ataturk “who understood that Hagia Sophia should serve all Turkey’s people and indeed the whole world.”

“The days of conquest should remain a closed chapter of our collective histories,” he told The Associated Press, adding that Turkey’s government “can still choose wisely” but letting Hagia Sophia remain a “monument to all civilizations and universal values.”

Patriarch Kirill, the leader of the Russian Orthodox Church, called for “prudence” and the preservation of the “current neutral status” for the Hagia Sophia, which he said was one of Christianity’s “devoutly venerated symbols.”

U.S. Secretary of State Mike Pompeo said last month that the landmark should remain a museum to serve as bridge between faiths and cultures. His comments drew a rebuke from Turkey’s Foreign Ministry, which said Hagia Sophia was a domestic issue of Turkish national sovereignty.

Turkey's President Recep Tayyip Erdogan, a devout Muslim, has frequently used the Hagia Sophia issue to drum up support for his Islamic-rooted party.

Some Islamic prayers have been held in the museum in recent years. In a major symbolic move, Erdogan recited the opening verse of the Quran there in 2018.

Built under Byzantine Emperor Justinian, Hagia Sophia was the main seat of the Eastern Orthodox church for centuries, where emperors were crowned amid ornate marble and mosaic decorations.

The minarets were added later, and the building was turned into an imperial mosque following the 1453 Ottoman conquest of Constantinople — the city that is now called Istanbul.

The building opened its doors as a museum in 1935, a year after the Council of Ministers’ decision.

Mosaics depicting Jesus, Mary and Christian saints that were plastered over in line with Islamic rules were uncovered through arduous restoration work for the museum. Hagia Sophia was the most popular museum in Turkey last year, drawing more than 3.7 million visitors.

 

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