A Turkish court on Thursday heard a case aimed at converting Istanbul’s sixth century Agia Sophia back into a mosque and will announce its verdict within 15 days, a lawyer said, on an issue which has drawn international expressions of concern.
President Tayyip Erdogan has proposed restoring the mosque status of the UNESCO World Heritage Site, a building at the heart of both Christian Byzantine and Muslim Ottoman empires and today one of Turkey’s most visited monuments.
The government decision to turn the mosque into a museum was made in 1934 in the early years of the modern secular Turkish state founded by Mustafa Kemal Ataturk. The court case disputes the legality of that conversion.
Greece said on Thursday Turkey risked opening up “a huge emotional chasm” with Christian countries if it pressed ahead with a proposal to convert the Agia Sophia museum in Istanbul into a mosque.
“Agia Sophia is a world heritage monument… Many countries, culminating in the intervention of the U.S State Department, highlighted this very point, urging Turkey not to take steps which would create a huge emotional chasm between the Christians of the world and Turkey,” Greek government spokesman Stelios Petsas told a news briefing.
U.S. Secretary of State Mike Pompeo on Wednesday urged Turkey to let Agia Sophia remain a museum, while the spiritual head of the world’s Orthodox Christians warned its conversion to a mosque would sow division.
Agia Sophia was the foremost church in Christendom for 900 years and then one of Islam’s greatest mosques for 500 years after the Ottoman conquest of Istanbul.
Ecumenical Patriarch Bartholomew, the spiritual head of some 300 million Orthodox Christians worldwide and based in Istanbul, said converting it to a mosque would disappoint Christians and would “fracture” East and West.
Turkish groups have campaigned for years for Agia Sophia’s conversion into a mosque and Erdogan, a pious Muslim, backed their call ahead of local elections last year.
Many Turks argue that mosque status would better reflect the identity of Turkey as an overwhelmingly Muslim country, and recent polls have shown that most Turks support a change.
The court will announce its verdict within 15 days, a lawyer said.