Turkey’s Plans for Hagia Sophia Strain Greek Relations

Plans to convert the famous 6th-century building in Istanbul back into a mosque, after being a museum since 1935, have further tested relations with Greece – already damaged by over other regional and international disputes.

The Turkish government’s plans to turn the iconic Hagia Sophia in Istanbul into a mosque have added fresh tension to Turkish-Greek relations, at a time when those relations are being tested by other international crises.

Built in the 6th century as the main church of what was then Constantinople, it was the jewel of the Eastern Roman, or Byzantine, Empire for almost 900 years, and seat of the Patriarch of the Eastern Orthodox Church.

Following the fall of Constantinople in 1456 to the Ottomans, Sultan Mehmet the Second turned the cathedral into a mosque as a symbol of his victory.

After serving as a mosque for nearly 500 hundred years, modern Turkey’s founder, Mustafa Kemal Ataturk, turned it into a museum in 1935.

Muslim and nationalist groups have repeatedly urged Turkish governments to make the Hagia Sophia a mosque once again, but this demand never made headway with Turkish leaders until current strongman Recep Tayyip Erdogan took power.

“Our preparations continue. We can name it the Hagia Sophia Mosque, not a museum, and its museum status will end,” President Erdogan said in a TV interview on June 9, after several officials from his ruling Justice and Development Party, AKP, had revealed the government’s plans.

The plans were immediately criticized by the government of mainly Orthodox Christian Greece. “Any questioning of this status is not just an insult to the sentiments of Christians, it is an insult to the international community and international law,” Greek Foreign Minister George Katrougalos said.

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