The Turkish Minister of Culture and Tourism has reportedly said that the UN body that protects significant cultural and religious sites was “not bothered” by the controversial conversion of a former Byzantine-era church into a functioning mosque. The Hagia Sophia was officially converted into a place of Islamic worship in July after Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan signed a decree annulling the building’s museum status and reverting it to a mosque.
According to Turkish press reports, minister Mehmet Nuri Ersoy was answering questions at the Grand National Assembly of Turkey regarding the ongoing protection and restoration of the Hagia Sophia. He insisted that the building was the sole responsibility of the Ministry and Turkey’s Religious Affairs, and seemed to downplay UNESCO’s concerns over its conversion.
Ersoy said that “since Greece complained about us to UNESCO”, prompting their involvement. “They are not bothered by the fact that it became a mosque,” he added. “The UNESCO vice-president who came told me that their main criterion is for Hagia Sophia to be open for people to visit and for it to be protected.”
In a statement, UNESCO once again insisted that it was concerned by the conversion, even sending a team of experts to Turkey to look at the “potential implications” of such a dramatic change in status.
UNESCO insisted that it had “reacted to the change of Hagia Sophia’s status as early as July 2020 and expressed its concern in this regard” and that its “position has remained constant since then”.
It continued: “UNESCO immediately initiated a review process and sent a mission to the property from 5th to 9th October 2020, led by an eminent cultural heritage expert, to look in detail at each of the potential implications of this change in status, and their impact on the Outstanding Universal Value of the property.
“This review, which covers several components of the property Historic Areas of Istanbul, in particular Hagia Sophia and Chora, is still ongoing. The report referred to has not been finalised and no conclusions can be drawn at this time.”
At the time of the conversion, UNESCO added that it was “regrettable that the Turkish decision was not the subject of dialog nor notification beforehand” and called on the Turkish authorities to “open a dialog without delay in order to avoid a step back from the universal value of this exceptional heritage whose preservation will be reviewed by the World Heritage Committee in its next session”.
Many reacted strongly to the conversion of the Hagia Sophia, which was a site of great significance for Orthodox Christians in particular.
Greece slammed the decision as an “open provocation to the civilised world”.
“The nationalism displayed by Erdogan … takes his country back six centuries,” said Culture Minister Lina Mendoni in a statement at the time.
The US State Department said it was “disappointed by the decision”.
It added: “We understand the Turkish Government remains committed to maintaining access to the Hagia Sophia for all visitors, and look forward to hearing its plans for continued stewardship of the Hagia Sophia to ensure it remains accessible without impediment for all.”