Mike Pompeo urges Turkey to maintain Hagia Sophia’s status as a museum

1 July 2020
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U.S. Secretary of State Mike Pompeo urged Turkey to not change the current museum status of the Hagia Sophia, the 6th-century Byzantine monument in Istanbul on Wednesday.

In a press statement responding to media reports about Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan’s intention to turn the World Heritage monument into a mosque, Pompeo said, “We urge the government of Turkey to continue to maintain the 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.”

Pompeo’s full statement titled “The Status of the Hagia Sophia” reads as follows:

“The Government of Turkey has administered the Hagia Sophia as a museum -officially recognized by UNESCO as part of the Historic Areas of Istanbul World Heritage Site – in an outstanding manner for nearly a century. We urge the Government of Turkey to continue to maintain the 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.

“This extraordinary site is a testament to religious expression and to artistic and technical genius, reflected in its rich and complex 1,500-year history. Moreover, the site’s status as a museum has allowed people from all over the world to access and reflect upon this magnificent achievement.

“The United States views a change in the status of the Hagia Sophia as diminishing the legacy of this remarkable building and its unsurpassed ability -so rare in the modern world- to serve humanity as a much-needed bridge between those of differing faith traditions and cultures. We seek to continue to work with the Government of Turkey on a broad range of issues of mutual interest, including the preservation of religious and cultural sites”.

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

— Secretary Pompeo (@SecPompeo) July 1, 2020

Turkish theologian: “No one needs Hagia Sophia as a mosque”

The real intentions of Recep Tayyip Erdogan behind the resumption of the effort to turn Hagia Sophia into a mosque are revealed by a Turkish theologian who spoke to the German newspaper Süddeutsche Zeitung on the occasion of the forthcoming decision of the Turkish judiciary on the case.

“No one needs Hagia Sophia as a mosque. There are several places of worship in Istanbul”, said Cemil Kilic. President Erdogan wants to win lost ground among voters. The government is under pressure due to the economic hardship caused by the coronavirus pandemic. With Hagia Sophia, the president wants to divert attention from financial problems”.

SZ also recalls that Hagia Sophia, a symbol of Byzantium with a history of more than 1.500 years, was turned into a mosque after the fall of Constantinople by the Ottomans, while in 1935, under Kemal Ataturk, it was turned into a museum.

Cemil Kilic cannot predict what the Turkish court will decide, but he believes that because the government has raised the issue too high on the agenda, Erdogan will implement it.

“If the judges deem the Kemalist decree inactive – which would be my guess – the Hagia Sophia should be classified as a mosque. The government should not completely abolish the museum. It can be left open to tourists, but the building can be used for prayer on special occasions as a mosque”, he said.

According to him, the conversion of Hagia Sophia into a mosque is possible “because unfortunately there is a precedent: the church of the Monastery of Chora in Istanbul. After many appeals, the church was converted into a mosque in 2017”.

He also said that the issue of the conversion of Hagia Sophia was not new but had been used for political reasons since the 1950s by most governments. “I personally believe that Hagia Sophia should remain a museum”, said the Turkish theologian.

Turkey and the “inferiority syndrome”

As for those who want to turn Hagia Sophia into a mosque, citing Muhammad II, who turned it into a mosque a year after the fall of the city, Cemil Kilic says:

“Sultan Mohammed II has preserved the church. Keep the name of the building. He did not destroy the Christian murals and mosaics, but a varnish coating was applied on them. Sultan Muhammad was not the Taliban! He wanted to protect and preserve the Hagia Sophia”.

Asked if the planned new use of the Hagia Sophia was aimed at further alienating the Kemalist secular state, the Turkish theologian said that this was indeed Erdogan’s goal.

“The Foreign Ministry has brought the fate of Hagia Sophia to the forefront of Turkish sovereignty, rejecting any objections from abroad. What does Hagia Sophia have to do with Turkish sovereignty? The Islamic world has a syndrome of inferiority to the West. Turkey is one such example. It has been weak for 300 years: politically, economically, militarily. That is why the Turks want us to come forward. But this way we only fool ourselves”.

Finally, Cemil Kilic estimates that Erdogan’s decision on the Hagia Sophia could increase his popularity in the Islamic world. “In the Islamic world view, there are three places of great religious significance: the Kaaba in Mecca, the Al Aqsa Mosque in Jerusalem and Hagia Sophia“.

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