On March 28, 2019, the United States Commission on International Religious Freedom (USCIRF) today condemned recent statements by Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan declaring his intention to convert the Hagia Sophia in Istanbul from a museum into a mosque.
USCIRF Chair Tenzin Dorjee stated: “Hagia Sophia bears profound historical and spiritual significance to Muslims and Christians alike, and its status as a museum must be maintained. President Erdogan’s comments are needlessly provocative and hurtful to Turkey’s minority religious communities. Additionally, the implications of such an action are compounded by the deteriorating landscape for religious freedom, democracy, and human rights in Turkey.”
The Hagia Sophia is known throughout the world as the Great Church of Christ. Built in the sixth century by the Byzantine Emperor Justinian, Hagia Sophia was for nearly a thousand years the seat of the Ecumenical Patriarchate, the center of the Orthodox Faith, and the world’s most magnificent cathedral. Following the Muslim conquest of Constantinople in 1453, it was converted to a mosque by Sultan Mehmet II, and became a museum in 1935. It was designated by the United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization (UNESCO) as a World Heritage Site in 1985.
On March 24, 2019, Erdogan was asked in an interview whether the Hagia Sophia would be converted to a mosque. He replied: “This is not unlikely. We might even change its name to Ayasofya Mosque.” In response to Erdogan’s recent statements, UNESCO officials have reportedly stated that changing Hagia Sophia’s status requires the approval of UNESCO.
In its 2018 Annual Report, USCIRF classified Turkey among its Tier 2 list of countries in which religious freedom is not fully respected. Tier 2 countries are so classified for engaging in or tolerating religious freedom violations that meet at least one of the elements of the “systematic, ongoing, egregious” standard used to designate a “country of particular concern” under the International Religious Freedom Act.
Dr. Anthony J. Limberakis, National Commander of the Order of Saint Andrew the Apostle, Archons of the Ecumenical Patriarchate, said in a recent statement: “The Order urgently requests that the United Nations and the U.S. State Department and Commission on Religious Freedom act to prevent this, given the Hagia Sophia’s importance for Christians and the deleterious effect this change would have upon Turkey’s embattled Christian minority. Converting the Hagia Sophia to a mosque would further undermine the position of the Christians of that nation, making their situation all the more precarious. We ask instead that the government of Turkey affirm its commitment to religious freedom and discard all plans to change the status of the Hagia Sophia.”