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International relations

Turkish plan to make Hagia Sophia a mosque splits friends and foes

Ankara leans on Pakistan, Malaysia and Indonesia with Arab ties at low point

Muslims gather for evening prayers in front of the Hagia Sophia in Istanbul, Turkey, July 10.   © Reuters

ISTANBUL -- Global public opinion is divided over Turkey's decision on July 10 to convert the historical Hagia Sophia museum in Istanbul into a mosque.

The Turkish Foreign Ministry shared a list of positive reactions to the decision with the Nikkei Asian Review, with more than 30 people and entities included. Those on the list included the Iranian foreign ministry, the Grand Mufti of Oman, the Deputy Chairman of the Pakistan Senate Saleem Mandviwalla, the leader of the opposition party in the Pakistan national assembly Shehbaz Sharif, various Malaysian and Indonesian members of parliament, leaders of Islamic non-governmental organizations, as well as scholars from Thailand.

Russia seems to be avoiding making any direct criticism on the issue, reflecting the delicate bilateral relationship between the two countries. Since Russia has a largely Christian Orthodox population, President Vladimir Putin talked to Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan on the phone on Monday, during which he "drew the attention of Erdogan to the considerable public outcry in Russia" to the decision.

According to a statement from the Kremlin, Erdogan guaranteed that anyone who wished to visit Hagia Sofia, including foreign nationals, would be able to, as well as making assurances on the safety of items in its collections that are sacred to Christians.

The same day, the Russian Foreign Ministry said "this is a Turkish internal affair in which neither us nor others should interfere."

Arab states have largely remained officially silent on the move, given that Turkey's relations with major Arab countries like Egypt and Saudi Arabia are at a low point, while responses on their conventional and social media have also been divided and varied.

A rare expression of opinion by an Arab minister came from the United Arab Emirates. The Minister of Culture and Knowledge Development Noura Al Kaabi tweeted on July 11 that "Hagia Sophia has been a historic landmark for thousands of years. Changing its status will harm its cultural value. It has remained a valuable symbol and icon of interfaith dialogue between cultures and civilizations."

Bilateral relations between the UAE and Turkey were damaged by Turkey's policy of supporting Qatar in its diplomatic spat with the UAE and other countries in the Persian Gulf. A Saudi-led coalition of gulf nations severed ties with Qatar in 2017 over allegations of its support for terrorism.

Meanwhile, the U.S. and countries in western Europe have been more vocal in their opposition to the conversion of the monument.

After chairing a meeting of EU foreign ministers on Monday, EU foreign policy chief Josep Borrell told reporters in Brussels that they had expressed "broad support to call on the Turkish authorities to urgently reconsider and reverse this decision."

The U.S. State Department said it was "disappointed" by the decision, while Democratic presidential nominee Joe Biden issued a statement urging "Erdogan to reverse his decision."

Pope Francis also said he was "very saddened" and "pained" regarding the conversion of Hagia Sophia into a mosque.

President Erdogan had been hinting at his desire to convert the museum into a mosque for a long time but had been cautious on taking action.

He had previously warned that converting it could bring a "heavy price," due to the fact that Turkey runs thousands of mosques globally, with fears over what could happen to those mosques. There are 6.5 million Turkish expatriates abroad, most living in Western Europe. His comments possibly alluded to the fear of extremist attacks on Turkish-run mosques or retaliation by foreign states on those mosques if Hagia Sophia was converted.

However, since his ruling AK Party lost mayoral seats in big cities including Istanbul and the capital Ankara in local elections in March 2019, the president began to put more weight behind the plan.

Murat Yetkin, a leading political journalist and author, wrote on his news analysis portal Yetkin Report that mounting economic hardships due to coronavirus, as well as the watering down of the AKP's voter base caused by two new splinter political parties founded by Erdogan's former lieutenants after the local elections, had prompted the president to convert Hagia Sophia into a mosque in an attempt to consolidate his voter support.

All opinion polls in Turkey show that converting the Hagia Sophia museum into a mosque has the support of the majority of the country's public. However, according to local pollster Metropoll, 44% of citizens also believe the decision will "change the [political] agenda and prevent discussion about the current economic crisis."

On July 10, Turkey's highest administrative court reversed past rulings on Hagia Sophia, with five high court judges unanimously deciding that the 1934 cabinet decision to turn the mosque into a museum "did not comply with the law." Erdogan immediately issued a decree to turn it into a mosque. The first prayer will take place on July 24, with the president taking part.

The Hagia Sofia cathedral, now a UNESCO world heritage site, was built in 537 under the Byzantine Empire and was the most important Orthodox Church for almost a millennium. It was then converted into a grand mosque following the conquest of Constantinople (now Istanbul) in 1453 by the Ottoman Empire. Turkey's founding father Mustafa Kemal Ataturk converted it into a religiously neutral museum in 1934 under the cabinet decree.

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