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Hagia Sophia conversion blow to 'secular pride,' Orhan Pamuk says

Nobel laureate criticizes Erdogan's decision to revert UNESCO site to mosque

The Hagia Sophia will hold its first Friday prayer on July 24.   © Reuters

ISTANBUL -- Turkey's government should not convert the Hagia Sophia from museum back to a mosque, Orhan Pamuk, the country's first Nobel Prize winner for literature told Nikkei.

"I am angry," Pamuk said. "The Turkish nation is very proud to be the only secular Muslim nation and this was the biggest sign of it. Now they took away that pride from the nation."

The historic structure, which dots the city's iconic skyline with its domes and minarets, sent a message to the world when it was turned into a museum by Kemal Ataturk, modern Turkey's secularist founding father, Pamuk said. 

"It was the most important and deliberate decision by Kemal Ataturk to say rest of world: 'We are secular, we are different than other Muslim countries, we are like Europeans and we are modern so please accept us among you. We want to be seen like this,' he said.

Although polling shows broad support for converting the UNESCO World Heritage site, Pamuk says it would be a mistake.

"Secularism is [the] pride of every Turk, except 10% who are very religious. Even ruling AKP voters are also proud to be secular and this was the biggest sign," Pamuk said, referring to the ruling Justice and Development Party.

On Friday, Turkey's highest administrative court revoked a decision to turn Istanbul's Hagia Sophia into a museum. President Recep Tayyip Erdogan immediately issued a decree ordering it to be turned into a mosque.

"It is Turkey’s sovereign right to decide for which purpose Hagia Sofia will be used," Erdogan said in a televised speech that day.

He said entrance fees will be canceled and people of all faiths will be allowed entry.

Orhan Pamuk says a secular Hagia Sophia is a symbol of pride for Turkey. (Photo by Momoko Kidera)

"Like all our mosques, its doors will be open to everyone, Muslim or non-Muslim. As the world's common heritage, Hagia Sophia with its new status will keep on embracing everyone in a more sincere way," he said.

The Hagia Sophia was built as a church in the year 360 during the Roman Empire, and after a fire it was rebuilt in its current form in 537. In 1453, it was transferred into a mosque when the Ottoman Turks conquered Constantinople, current day Istanbul. 

The walls inside the vast doomed structure are covered with both Christian mosaics and panels with the name of God as well as the names of the Prophet Muhammad and his successor caliphs. Ataturk changed the building into a museum in 1934 by a cabinet decree, as a symbol of the country’s new path forward.

Conservative Turks had been calling for it to be turned back into a mosque, partly based on a belief that the Prophet Muhammad had wanted Constantinople to be conquered. Erdogan and his aides have been reversing secularist policies put in place by military and elites who have carried Ataturk's torch.

"If implemented in full, the building’s conversion would cause significant, potentially irreversible harm to Turkey’s international brand," Soner Cagaptay, director of the Turkish research program at the Washington Institute for Near East Policy, an American think tank, wrote Friday. "As the nation’s most-visited building by foreign tourists, Hagia Sophia in many ways is Turkey’s global brand."

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