International rejection of a recent decision by Turkey to convert its prominent Hagia Sophia museum back into a mosque is growing, as the U.S. Commission on International Religious Freedom on Friday condemned the move.
The decision by Turkish President Recep Tayip Erdogan came after a court annulled a 1934 declaration that turned the former Greek Orthodox cathedral-turned-mosque into a museum.
The Hagia Sophia was known as the Roman Empire’s first Christian cathedral for nearly 1,000 years. It was converted into a mosque in 1453 after Turkey’s conquest by the Ottoman Empire and had served as a museum for 86 years.
Mr. Erdogan has rallied support around efforts to turn the controversial world heritage site back into a mosque despite international pushback, including from the U.S. and Orthodox Christian leaders.
On Friday, USCIRF Vice Chair Tony Perkins said in a statement that the commission “condemns the unequivocal politicization of the Hagia Sophia, an architectural wonder that has for so long stood as a cherished testament to a complex history and rich diversity.”
“It is regrettable that the Turkish government has proceeded with these steps, and with such disregard for the feelings of its own religious minority communities,” USCIRF Commissioner Nury Turkel added. “This decision comes at a time of increased fear and insecurity due to recent attacks on churches and other threats against religious and ethnic minorities and will only add to their sense of marginalization under President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan’s government.”
The move also caught pushback from Cypriot Foreign Minister Nikos Christodoulides, a Greek Cypriot, who tweeted that Cyprus “strongly condemns Turkey’s actions on Hagia Sophia in its effort to distract domestic opinion and calls on Turkey to respect its international obligations.”
Ahead of the announcement to convert the museum, UNESCO called on Turkey to not alter with the “outstanding universal value” of the Hagia Sophia and asked Turkey to provide the group with “prior notification,” indicating that UNESCO could change the site’s world heritage status, CNN reported.
Turkish diplomat Hami Aksoy said in a statement that the country will guarantee “freedom of religion and belief,” and will protect “all cultural properties that we own without any distinction, including Hagia Sophia, within the framework of the tradition of tolerance stemming from our culture and history.”