ISTANBUL: 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.
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.
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 Qur'an recital in 85 years inside the Hagia Sophia in 2015.
In 2016, the state religious channel broadcast a Qur'an recitation by a different senior Turkish cleric inside the museum on each day of the holy month of Ramadan.
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 Mendoni, who sent a letter of protest to UNESCO last week, said the move “rekindles national and religious fanaticism” and is an attempt to “diminish the monument’s global radiance.”
She accused the government of using the monument “to serve internal political interests,” arguing that only UNESCO had the authority to change Hagia Sophia’s status.
The issue is also followed closely in Washington.
US Secretary of State Mike Pompeo on Wednesday urged Turkey to keep the Hagia Sophia as a museum, and to ensure it remains accessible to all.
“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... to serve humanity as a much-needed bridge between those of differing faith traditions and cultures.”
But Turks are divided over its future status.
Mahmut Karagoz, an Istanbul shoemaker, 55, dreams he can one day pray under the dome of Hagia Sophia.
“It is a legacy by our Ottoman ancestors. I hope our prayers will be heard, this nostalgia must come to an end,” he told AFP.
However Sena Yildiz, an economics student, believes the Hagia Sophia should retain its museum status.
“It is an important place for Muslims, but also for Christians and for all those who love history,” she said.