PARIS: As soon as the Turkish President Tayyip Erdogan declared Istanbul’s Hagia Sophia open to Muslim worship on Friday (10th of July, 2020), UNESCO called for the universal value of World Heritage to be preserved.
According to details court had ruled that the building’s conversion to a museum by modern Turkey’s founding statesman was illegal: “It was concluded that the settlement deed allocated it as a mosque and its use outside this character is not possible legally.
“The cabinet decision in 1934 that ended its use as a mosque and defined it as a museum did not comply with laws,” it said, referring to an edict signed by Mustafa Kemal Ataturk. The sixth-century building was converted into a museum during his regime.
It is pertinent to mention here that Hagia Sophia was the property of the Ottoman leader who captured the city in 1453 and turned the already 900-year-old Byzantine church into a mosque.
One of those who took to the Twitter to express their contentment stated: “A couple Years ago I had paid €20 to enter the Hagia Sophia. Next time when I visit Istanbul I’ll be praying Salah in it for Free.“
However, UNESCO’s Director-General Audrey Azoulay pointed out: “Hagia Sophia is part of the Historic Areas of Istanbul, a property inscribed on UNESCO’s World Heritage List. Hagia Sophia is an architectural masterpiece and a unique testimony to interactions between Europe and Asia over the centuries. Its status as a museum reflects the universal nature of its heritage, and makes it a powerful symbol for dialogue.
“This decision announced today raises the issue of the impact of this change of status on the property’s universal value. States have an obligation to ensure that modifications do not affect the Outstanding Universal Value of inscribed sites on their territories. UNESCO must be given prior notice of any such modifications, which, if necessary, are then examined by the World Heritage Committee.
“UNESCO also recalls that the effective, inclusive and equitable participation of communities and other stakeholders concerned by the property is necessary to preserve this heritage and highlight its uniqueness and significance. The purpose of this requirement is to protect and transmit the Outstanding Universal Value of heritage, and it is inherent to the spirit of the World Heritage Convention.
“These concerns were shared with the Republic of Turkey in several letters, and again yesterday evening with the representative of the Turkish Delegation to UNESCO. It is regrettable that the Turkish decision was made without any form of dialogue or prior notice.
“UNESCO calls upon the Turkish authorities to initiate dialogue without delay, in order to prevent any detrimental effect on the universal value of this exceptional heritage, the state of conservation of which will be examined by the World Heritage Committee at its next session”.
Assistant Director-General UNESCO for Culture Ernesto Ottone maintained: “It is important to avoid any implementing measure, without prior discussion with UNESCO, that would affect physical access to the site, the structure of the buildings, the site’s moveable property, or the site’s management.”
Meanwhile, President Erdogan has rejected worldwide condemnation over Turkey’s decision to convert the Byzantine-era monument Hagia Sophia back into a Mosque, saying it represented his country’s will to use its “sovereign rights”.
Erdogan, had announced on 10th of July that Muslim prayers would begin on 24th of July at the mosque. Earlier, the President had repeatedly called for the at Hagia Sophia to be renamed as a mosque and in 2018, he recited a verse from the Holy Quran: “Those who do not take a step against Islamophobia in their own countries … attack Turkey’s will to use its sovereign rights.”
It may be recalled that Hagia Sophia was first constructed as a cathedral in the Christian Byzantine Empire but was converted into a Mosque after the Ottoman conquest of Constantinople in 1453.
The proclamation emerged after a top court cancelled a 1934 cabinet decision under modern Turkey’s secularizing founder Mustafa Kemal Ataturk to preserve the church-turned-Mosque as a museum.
The court ruled that “there are no provisions whatsoever in the convention (concerning the Protection of the World Cultural and Natural Heritage) that prevents … the usage of the Hagia Sophia in accordance with domestic law.”
Erdogan then signed a presidential decree handing the control of the “Hagia Sophia Mosque” to Turkey’s religious affairs directorate, Diyanet. We made this decision not looking at what others say but looking what our right is and what our nation wants, just like what we have done in Syria, in Libya and elsewhere.”
Despite appeals from USA and from Russia, with which Ankara has forged close relations in recent years Erdogan went on to transform Museum into mosque. Greece condemned the move as a provocation, France deplored it while the United States also expressed disappointment.
Russia’s Deputy Foreign Minister Alexander Grushko said on 11th of July, that Moscow regretted the decision:“The cathedral is on Turkey’s territory, but it is without question everybody’s heritage.”
The influential bishop Hilarion, who heads the Russian Orthodox Church’s department for external church relations, also expressed his sorrow: “It is a blow to global Christianity … For us (Hagia Sophia) remains a cathedral dedicated to the Saviour.”
World Council of Churches, which represents 350 Christian churches, had written to Turkey’s president expressing their “grief and dismay”. But according to Ozgur Unluhisarcikli, Ankara director of the German Marshall Fund, the move would win hearts and minds at home as most Turks “would favor such a decision for religious or nationalist sentiments…This is a debate president Erdogan cannot lose and the opposition cannot win. As a matter of fact, this issue also has the potential to disunite the opposition parties.”
Erdogan’s nationalist ally Devlet Bahceli welcomed the decision, saying that reopening Hagia Sophia to Muslim worship “has long been our desire.”
After 10th of July decision, hundreds gathered outside the building and performed evening prayers. Next day, police had put up barriers around the Hagia Sophia. A tourist from Italy stated: “We wanted to come and visit Istanbul and the Hagia Sophia museum but unfortunately we realized that from today it is closed. It was our little dream because since our daughter was born we were not able to come and here we go.”
A Russian based in Istanbul stated: “From what our friends and family were telling us it was something special and we wanted to feel the same. At the moment I am not sure what to expect but I feel sad in a way.”
However, President Erdogan clarified: “The Hagia Sophia’s doors will remain open to visitors from all around the world.” President’s press aide took to the Twitter to maintain: “People of all religious denominations are welcome and encouraged to visit it – just as they have been able to visit other mosques, including the Blue Mosque.”
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