The chairman of one of Germany’s foremost Turkish community groups on Sunday slammed the planned conversion of the Haghia Sophia museum as a “wrong decision.”
Gökay Sofuoglu, from the Turkish Community in Germany — one of the groups representing the Turkish community in Germany — said the decision to turn the building, which is widely viewed as a symbol of religious tolerance and secularism, into a mosque would reflect poorly on Turkey.
“The Haghia Sophia is a world heritage site and a symbol of peaceful coexistence between religions,” said Sofuoglu. “It is absolutely the wrong decision to turn it into a mosque,” he told the news outlet RedaktionsNetzwerk Deutschland (RND).
Read more: Turkey’s Haghia Sophia becomes a political battleground
“Turkey will now be condemned as the country that cannot cope with such an inheritance,” he added.
Turkey’s President Recep Tayyip Erdogan, who critics say is undermining Muslim-majority Turkey’s secular pillars, announced on Friday that Muslim prayers would begin at the UNESCO World Heritage site on June 24.
A top Turkish court on Friday ruled the 1934 conversion of the Haghia Sophia into a museum to be unlawful.
The news sparked a wave of criticism, with several Christian leaders speaking out against the decision.
In 532, Roman Emperor Justinian ordered the construction of an awe-inspiring church in his residence Constantinople — “one that has never existed since Adam’s time, and one that will never exist again”. Roughly 10,000 workers were involved in the construction work. For a millennium, the Bosporus basilica remained Christendom’s biggest church.
Justinian is said to have invested almost 150 tons of gold into the construction of the Hagia Sophia. The building was in need of some corrections though: At first, the cupola was too flat and caved in during earthquakes. The Hagia Sophia — “Holy Wisdom” — soon came to be used as the Roman Empire’s official church. From the 7th century onwards, almost all Byzantine emperors were crowned there.
The year 1453 saw the end of Byzantine rule in Constantinople. After conquering the City, Sultan Mehmet II of the Ottoman Empire turned the Hagia Sophia into a mosque. Crosses were exchanged for crescents, bells and altars destroyed or removed, mosaics and frescoes painted over. The addition of the first minaret completed the transformation into a mosque.
The founder of modern Turkey, Mustafa Kemal Ataturk, turned the Hagia Sophia into a museum in 1934. During the very sumptuous restoration works, old Byzantine mosaics were excavated. On July 10, 2020, a Turkish top court annulled the 1934 decree, according to reports by state news agency Anadolu, clearing the way for it to be reconverted into a mosque.
The eventful history of the Hagia Sophia is visible everywhere. The letterings “Mohamed” (left) and “Allah” (right) flank the Virgin Mary with the Infant Jesus on her lap (in the back). The Hagia Sophia has been a World Heritage Site since 1985.
The most splendid mosaic in the Hagia Sophia is a work of art from the 14th century which had been excavated on the wall of the southern gallery. Even though it could not be fully restored, the faces are clearly discernible: Jesus as the ruler of the world is depicted in the middle accompanied by Mary to his left and John to his right.
Bartholomew I, the Patriarch of Constantinople, and honorary head of all Orthodox Christians, has also laid claim to the Hagia Sophia. He is opposed to converting the building into a mosque. Since 1934 the Hagia Sophia has had the status of a museum, it should serve as a “place and symbol of meeting, dialogue and peaceful coexistence of peoples and cultures.”
Turkey’s top administrative court has annulled the decades-old government decree turning the Hagia Sophia into a museum, paving the way for the UNESCO World Heritage site building’s restoration to mosque status, despite international warnings against such a move. It is one of the most visited monuments in Turkey.
In the Vatican’s first reaction to Turkey’s decision, Pope Francis on Sunday joined the chorus of condemnation.
“I think of Haghia Sophia, and I am very saddened,” Pope Francis said during his midday sermon in Saint Peter’s Square, adding little more to elaborate.
Read more: Haghia Sophia imam: part of Erdogan’s Islamization drive?
A tourist magnet for Istanbul, the Haghia Sophia was first constructed 1,500 years ago as a cathedral in the Christian Byzantine Empire. It was used by the Byzantines to crown their emperors.
The building was converted into a mosque after the Ottoman conquest of Constantinople, now Istanbul, in 1453 and became a museum in 1935.