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Turkey: Erdogan transforms the former Basilica of Saint Sophia into a mosque and provokes controversy

Turkey’s decision to transform the famous ex-basilica of Saint Sophia into a mosque has provoked a wave of criticism and condemnation from the international community, which has described the decision as “a step backwards in time to six centuries”, according to several media reports.

Greece condemned “in the strongest possible terms” the decision of Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan. The Minister of Culture, Lina Mendoni, described the decision as a “provocation to the civilised world”, considering that “the nationalism shown by President Erdogan takes his country back six centuries”.

The U.S. government said it is “disappointed” with the decision, while Russia, through its Orthodox Church, said it regrets that the “concern” of “millions of Christians” has not been heard. Similarly, the Sputnik agency, an organ of the Russian government, considered the decision to be “Erdogan’s arm of honour to European history”.

The transformation into a mosque of the Basilica of Saint Sophia, which belongs to the World Heritage of Humanity, was also criticised by UNESCO, which said it “deeply” regretted the decision “taken without prior dialogue”.

“Saint Sophia is an architectural masterpiece and a unique testimony to the meeting of Europe and Asia over the centuries. Its status as a museum reflects the universality of its heritage and makes it a powerful symbol of dialogue,” said Ms Azoulay, Director-General of UNESCO.

The United Arab Emirates criticized Erdogan’s decision. “Ayasophia has been a historical monument for thousands of years. Changing its status will undermine the cultural value of this symbol of humanity,” Culture Minister Nora Al Kaabi said on Twitter.

Built in Constantinople by the Byzantine Emperor Justinian in the sixth century, long before the advent of Islam, St. Sophia Basilica has served as a church for nearly a millennium. In 1453, the Ottoman Sultan Mehmet converted it into a mosque as a symbol of conquest after the Ottoman takeover of Constantinople, while retaining its name “Ayasofia”.

A little more than three centuries later, in 1934, the President of the Republic of Turkey, Mustafa Kemal Atatürk, decided to disuse the place to “offer it to humanity” and transformed Saint Sophia into a museum, thus becoming a symbol of secularism before Erdogan decided to reverse this decision almost a century later.

The World Council of Churches, which brings together some 350 Christian churches, including Protestant and Orthodox, and some 500 million believers, expressed its “sorrow and dismay” at the decision.

The Council criticised Erdogan for “reversing this positive sign of Turkey’s openness as a sign of exclusion and division”, warning that such action risks encouraging “the ambitions of other groups elsewhere who seek to change the status quo and promote the renewal of divisions between religious communities”.

In response to the barrage of criticism of his decision, Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan rejected it outright, saying that such a decision was within his country’s “sovereign rights”.

Those who do not flinch against Islamophobia in their own countries (…) attack Turkey’s willingness to use its sovereign rights,” Erdogan said. “We took this decision not on the basis of what others say but on the basis of our rights, as we have done in Syria, Libya and elsewhere,” the Turkish president said.

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