Published: Fri, July 10, 2020

Hagia Sophia: Iconic Istanbul museum 'could return to mosque'

Hagia Sophia: Iconic Istanbul museum 'could return to mosque'

A Turkish court is likely to announce on Friday that the 1934 conversion of Istanbul's Hagia Sophia into a museum was unlawful, two Turkish officials said, paving the way for its restoration as a mosque despite worldwide concerns.

Hours before the court issued the verdict, UNESCO released a statement, warning the Turkish government that it has certain responsibilities for the building under its World Heritage status. "Any modification must be notified beforehand by the state to Unesco and be reviewed if need be by the World Heritage Committee", the United Nations body told Reuters.

The World Heritage site was built in the 6th century by the Byzantine emperor Justinian as a cathedral of the Greek Orthodox church before being converted to a mosque under the Ottoman empire nine centuries later.

"We call on the Turkish authorities to initiate a dialogue before any decision is taken which could undermine the universal value of the site", the spokeswoman said, adding that this message was reiterated to the Turkish ambassador to UNESCO on Thursday.

"We urge Turkish authorities to start a dialog before any decision is taken that could undermine the universal value of the site", UNESCO said.

Turkey's President Recep Tayyip Erdogan called for the change.

It was not clear if the ruling by the Council of State will go into effect immediately. The president had raised the idea previously ahead of municipal elections in March past year in which his party suffered several setbacks, including losing control of Istanbul.

The prospect of such a move has raised alarm among U.S., Russian and Greek officials and Christian church leaders ahead of a verdict by Turkey's top administrative court, the Council of State, which held a hearing last Thursday. The religious group had contested the legality of the 1934 decision by the modern Turkish republic's secular government ministers and argued that the building was the personal property of Ottoman Sultan Mehmet II, who conquered Istanbul in 1453.

She noted that the Hagia Sophia was inscribed within the "Historic Areas of Istanbul" as a museum, a position that had repeatedly been communicated to Turkey through letters.

The head of the Eastern Orthodox Church has condemned the proposal, as has Greece - home to many millions of Orthodox followers. US Secretary of State Mike Pompeo has also weighed in on the debate by urging that the Hagia Sophia to remain accessible to all.

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