Erdogan rebuffs criticism over Hagia Sophia conversion to mosque

Istanbul (AFP) –


President Recep Tayyip Erdogan on Saturday rejected worldwide condemnation over Turkey's decision to convert the Byzantine-era monument Hagia Sophia back into a mosque, saying it represented his country's will to use its "sovereign rights".

Erdogan, who is accused by critics of chipping away at the Muslim-majority country's secular pillars, announced Friday that Muslim prayers would begin on July 24 at the UNESCO World Heritage site.

In the past, he has repeatedly called for the stunning building to be renamed as a mosque.

"Those who do not take a step against Islamophobia in their own countries ... attack Turkey's will to use its sovereign rights," Erdogan said during a ceremony he attended via video-conference.

A magnet for tourists worldwide, the Hagia Sophia was first constructed as a cathedral in the Christian Byzantine Empire but was converted into a mosque after the Ottoman conquest of Constantinople in 1453.

Erdogan's announcement came after the cancellation by a top court of a 1934 cabinet decision under modern Turkey's secularising founder Mustafa Kemal Ataturk to preserve the church-turned-mosque as a museum.

"We made this decision not looking at what others say but looking what our right is and what our nation wants, just like what we have done in Syria, in Libya and elsewhere," the Turkish leader said Saturday.

- 'A blow to global Christianity' -

Erdogan went ahead with the plan despite an open appeal from the NATO ally the United States as well as Russia, with which Ankara has forged close relations in recent years.

Greece swiftly condemned the move as a provocation, France deplored it while the United States also expressed disappointment.

Russia's Deputy Foreign Minister Alexander Grushko, said: "We regret" the decision, speaking to Interfax news agency Saturday.

"The cathedral is on Turkey's territory, but it is without question everybody's heritage," he said.

"We would like to hope that (Turkey) will fully honour all of the commitments having to do with the World Heritage status of the cathedral, in terms of its management, protection, and access."

The influential bishop Hilarion, who heads the Russian Orthodox Church's department for external church relations, expressed sorrow, speaking to state TV Rossiya24 aired late Friday.

"We had hoped till the end that Turkish leadership would overturn the decision and it brings great sorrow and great pain that the decision was taken.

"It is a blow to global Christianity… For us (Hagia Sophia) remains a cathedral dedicated to the Saviour."

"This is a debate president Erdogan cannot lose and the opposition cannot win. As a matter of fact, this issue also has the potential to disunite the opposition parties."