US Secretary of State Mike Pompeo has weighed in on a controversial debate in Turkey over the future of Istanbul’s ancient Hagia Sophia landmark, a day before a court ruling that may pave the way for requests to turn the site back into a mosque.
Pompeo’s pleas to retain Hagia Sophia legacy
US Secretary of State Mike Pompeo on Wednesday urged Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan not to convert the Hagia Sophia into a mosque and said Istanbul’s celebrated former cathedral should remain open to all.
Erdogan, whose roots are in political Islam, has mused about turning Hagia Sophia back into a mosque, triggering tension with neighboring Greece.
Pompeo issued a statement on the eve of an expected Turkish court decision on whether Hagia Sophia was rightfully turned into a museum.
We urge the Government of Turkey to continue to maintain the Hagia Sophia as a museum, as an exemplar of its commitment to respect Turkey’s diverse faith traditions and history, and to ensure it remains accessible to all.
— Secretary Pompeo (@SecPompeo) July 1, 2020
“We urge the government of Turkey to continue to maintain the Hagia Sophia as a museum, as an exemplar of its commitment to respect the faith traditions and diverse history that contributed to the Republic of Turkey, and to ensure it remains accessible to all,” Pompeo said.
“The United States views a change in the status of the Hagia Sophia as diminishing the legacy of this remarkable building and its unsurpassed ability — so rare in the modern world — to serve humanity as a much-needed bridge between those of differing faith traditions and cultures,” he said in a statement.
Pompeo stated that Hagia Sophia has been recognized by UNESCO as a World Heritage site for nearly a century, and should be maintained as such by Turkey to show respect to history.
Pompeo — an evangelical Protestant who often speaks about the rights of religious minorities — said that the United States hoped to maintain dialogue with Turkey over the preservation of religious and cultural sites.
Turkey’s plans for converting Hagia Sophia into a Mosque
In 2016, the government allowed the recitation of the Islamic call for prayer inside the building and later assigned an imam to a small chamber where people have been allowed to pray since 1991.
Hagia Sophia: Turkey to rule on turning site into mosque https://t.co/6ela8DFE0G
— BBC News (World) (@BBCWorld) July 1, 2020
Muslim clerics in May recited prayers inside the landmark to celebrate the anniversary of the Ottomans’ 1453 conquest of the city, then known as Constantinople.
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Originally built as a Greek Orthodox church using futuristic techniques in what was then Constantinople, it was the main cathedral in Christendom – and the world’s largest – for 900 years before being converted into an Ottoman mosque in 1453.
After the Ottoman conquest, it was converted into a mosque before being turned into a museum during the rule of Mustafa Kemal Ataturk, the secularizing founder of modern Turkey, in the 1930s.
Erdogan mused last year about turning the museum into a mosque.
Sentiments outside the border on converting Hagia Sophia into a Mosque
The remarks have drawn wide concern in Greece, whose Orthodox Church maintains its ecumenical patriarchate in Istanbul.
Greek officials have in the past accused Erdogan of using Hagia Sophia as something to lure voters to his party.
Ekathimerini, a popular Greek daily, published an article calling the move a stunt.
“Erdogan and his aides’ latest Hagia Sophia stunt will prove to be yet another piece of theatrics to divert the electorate’s attention away from the AKP [party’s] mismanagement of the economy and the Covid-19 pandemic,” the article said, referring to the ruling Justice and Development Party.
Turkey is a NATO ally of the United States but the two nations have seen friction in recent years, including over Ankara’s incursions into Syria and its purchase of weapons from Russia.
AFP with additional input by GVS News Desk
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