Erdogan’s Move on Hagia Sophia a “Deep Affront to Christians Around the World”

American officials reacted angrily on Friday to the decree by Turkey’s president Recep Tayyip Erdogan to change Hagia Sophia’s status from a museum and World Heritage site to a mosque. 

The leadership of the powerful Senate Foreign Relations Committee issued a statement “strongly denouncing” President Erdogan’s decision and saying that his move “is a deep affront to Christians around the world who look to Hagia Sophia as a shining light and deeply revered holy site.”

U.S. Senators Jim Risch (R-Idaho) and Bob Menendez (D-N.J.), chairman and ranking member of the Committee issued the following statement:

“Hagia Sophia in Istanbul, Turkey is a place of deep spiritual significance for people of diverse backgrounds from around the world. For more than three quarters of a century, Turkish policy maintained this revered building as a museum, but President Erdogan today signed a decree that removes this museum status and converts it into a mosque.

“We strongly denounce President Erdogan’s decision to convert Hagia Sophia from a museum into a mosque. At points in its history, Hagia Sophia served as a place of worship for Muslims and Christians, and for decades has been an extraordinary and welcoming center to people of all faiths. Erdogan’s move today is a deep affront to Christians around the world who look to Hagia Sophia as a shining light and deeply revered holy site. This conversion of its status is unnecessarily divisive at a time when we need more, not fewer, efforts to build bridges between Islam and Christianity. We strongly urge Erdogan to reverse this decision and sustain Hagia Sophia’s remarkable legacy and maintain its status as a religiously neutral museum for people of all faiths and cultures to visit and celebrate our common world heritage.”

The U.S. State Department expressed “disappointment” at the move by Turkey.

State Department Spokesperson Morgan Ortagus said in a statement. “We understand the Turkish Government remains committed to maintaining access to the Hagia Sophia for all visitors, and look forward to hearing its plans for continued stewardship of the Hagia Sophia to ensure it remains accessible without impediment for all.”

US Secretary of State Mike Pompeo has repeatedly addressed the threat that President Erdogan had made for several months leading up to today’s decree. In a statement issued on July 1, Pompeo lashed out against the idea that the hallowed UNESCO site would be made into a mosque.

“We urge the Government of Turkey to continue to maintain Hagia Sophia as a museum, as an exemplar of its commitment to respect the faith traditions and diverse history that contributed to the Republic of Turkey, and to ensure it remains accessible to all.”

Erdogan turns his back to the world

Congressman Gus Bilirakis, the co-chair of the Congressional Caucus on International Religious Freedom, also condemned the decision.

“In a clear demonstration of arrogance and inhumanity, Erdogan has turned his back on the international community,” Bilirakis says in a statement.

“Converting it back to its mosque status of 600 years is a disgrace and will only poison respect between religions and between people of religious faith, all Turkish citizens included,” he added.

The former U.S. Ambassador to Greece, David D. Pearce, didn’t mince words about President Erdogan’s decision to turn Hagia Sophia into a mosque, tweeting “Erdogan stokes the culture wars. Sad to see.”

Congressman David Cicilline, a Democrat representing Rhode Island, tweeted “The world should be outraged by Erdogan’s decision to take #HagiaSophia – part of our common world heritage – and use it as a political tool that divides. There should be consequences for this violation of Hagia Sophia’s @UNESCO World Heritage Site status.”

Religious chauvinism

The head of the Greek Orthodox Church in the US, Archbishop Elpidophoros, said that “the re-conversion of Hagia Sophia into a mosque is the worst example of religious chauvinism”. In a tweet, Elpidophoros expressed the hope that Turkey’s decision would not signal a deterioration of its stand on Christian minorities.

The Greek-American fraternal organization AHEPA condemned Friday’s decree by Turkish President Erdogan reconverting Hagia Sophia, a secular museum since 1935, into a mosque.

“AHEPA condemns in strongest terms the action taken today by Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan, who formally changed the status of Hagia Sophia to a mosque following a Turkish court’s decision that paved the way for him to do so.
It is unfortunate and a disappointment that Hagia Sophia has fallen victim to Turkey’s domestic politics. Today’s action also is an indictment of Turkey’s judicial system following Erdogan’s purges and the diminished role and influence of Turkey’s secular community in Turkish society under the tyranny of the Erdogan regime.
We appreciate the swift response from UNESCO. We call on the international community to hold Turkey accountable to the international bodies and conventions to which it is a signatory that stipulate Turkey’s responsibilities to preserve its rich cultural and religious heritage.”