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Greek Orthodox Church in US Asks UN to Censure Turkey Over Hagia Sophia

UNESCO World Heritage Site, once a church, then a mosque, then a museum, has again been designated a mosque in a move seen as bolstering President Erdoğan’s flagging support

The Greek Orthodox Archdiocese of America is petitioning UN experts to condemn Turkey’s conversion of the historic Hagia Sophia into a mosque, arguing that it is an attack against cultural heritage.

Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan controversially turned one of the most prominent buildings in the country into a mosque in July.

The decision was rebuked by the US, EU, and Pope Francis.

When Hagia Sophia was built nearly 1,500 years ago, it was the leading church for Orthodox Christians but was turned into a mosque after the conquest of Constantinople (later renamed Istanbul) by Ottoman Turks in the 15th century.

After the Turkish republic was established, the country’s secular founder, Mustafa Kemal Atatürk, turned it into a museum in 1934. It was seen as a symbol of harmony among religions and cultures and eventually became a UNESCO World Heritage Site.

In a letter addressed to UN special rapporteurs on Tuesday, the Greek Orthodox Archdiocese of America argued that Turkey breached its obligations under international law.

As a World Heritage Site, UNESCO says Turkey needed to consult with the organization before it changed the status of the monument.

The church also argues that the conversion of Hagia Sophia is part of a larger systemic effort by Turkey to erase cultural heritage.

A lawyer for the archdiocese, Christina Hioureas, told The Media Line, “The archdiocese hopes that by outlining Turkey’s obligations under international law, the special rapporteurs will issue a joint statement regarding this unlawful conduct, investigate the circumstances and work with UNESCO to take immediate steps to ensure the preservation, protection and transmission of cultural heritage for future generations.”

Once Hagia Sophia was converted, what especially raised eyebrows was the head of Turkey’s religious directorate delivering a sermon while holding a knife, a symbol of conquest.

[What] these decisions demonstrate is that the state is increasingly privileging one [religion] over the other

UN Special Rapporteur on Freedom of Religion Ahmed Shaheed said he condemned symbols of conquest inside Hagia Sophia.

“This is suggesting some groups are dominant and others are not,” Shaheed told The Media Line.

He added that Hagia Sophia is a significant example of the erosion of secular space and the increasing Islamic presence in public life.

“[What] these decisions demonstrate is that the state is increasingly privileging one [religion] over the other.”

Shaheed, a senior lecture at University of Essex’s School of Law, said he is waiting for a response from the Turkish government over his concerns before deciding whether it requires the attention of the UN’s human rights body.

The Turkish government rejected the church’s accusation, stating that Hagia Sophia was a mosque for centuries.

“The claim that reinstating it as a mosque is ‘erasing the cultural heritage of Orthodox Christians’ doesn’t make any sense. Hagia Sophia is part and parcel of the Turkish people’s heritage,” the Turkish President’s Communications Office wrote in an email to The Media Line.

[Orthodox Christians] will feel uncomfortable for sure. But this is different from … erasing cultural heritage

Muzaffer Şenel, an assistant professor of political science and international relations at Istanbul Şehir University, pointed out that the building is still open for people to visit and most of the building remained the same, even though that will be unsatisfactory to Orthodox Christians.

“They will feel uncomfortable for sure. But this is different from … erasing cultural heritage,” he told The Media Line.

However, there have been changes. A large carpet was laid over the floor and drapes covered the Christian artwork on the wall for Islamic prayers that can now be held again in the building.

Many analysts saw Erdoğan’s decision as an attempt to boost his right-wing popularity amid splits within his party and weakening support.

The Turkish president’s critics say that he has fed into a nationalist, Islamist vision of the country that has put pressure on religious minorities.

After clashes in the Caucasus in which Armenia fought against Turkey’s ally Azerbaijan, video on social media was posted reportedly showing cars with Azerbaijani and Turkish flags honking near the Armenian Patriarchate in Istanbul on Monday.

Amid the COVID-19 pandemic, Jewish activists reported an increase in anti-Semitism in the media while in May a man was reportedly detained for trying to burn the door of an Armenian church because he blamed the community for spreading the coronavirus.

During tensions with Israel, there have been protests outside of synagogues in Turkey.

These are endangered communities. They are at risk of extinction

Elizabeth Prodromou, an expert on geopolitics and religious freedom who signed the church’s letter to the UN rapporteurs, told The Media Line that she wants them to visit Turkey on a fact-finding mission regarding what she saw as violations of cultural and religious heritage.

Prodromou, a former US diplomat who is now an associate professor at Tufts University, said that Turkish authorities often don’t hold people who attack religious minorities accountable.

She wanted the letter to put attention on what she argued was Turkey putting religious minorities at risk, including the Christian community, which she said was 0.1% of the country’s population.

“These are endangered communities. They are at risk of extinction,” she said.

“[The Hagia Sophia decision] is a signal for the same sorts of behaviors in other parts of the world, because perpetrators realize that there are no consequences.”