Turkey to cover Hagia Sophia's Christian icons during prayers

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President Erdogan declared the building a mosque and said the first prayers would be held there within two weeks [Murad Sezer/Reuters]

Mosaics in Istanbul’s iconic Hagia Sophia will be covered by curtains or lasers during the Muslim prayers, the spokesman for Turkey’s governing Justice and Development Party (AK Party) has said.

The Christian icons would be uncovered and be open to all visitors at other times, and admission would be free of charge, the AK Party’s Omer Celik said on Monday, without explaining further.

A Turkish court last week ruled that the conversion of the sixth-century Byzantine site into a museum in 1934 was unlawful.

President Recep Tayyip Erdogan declared the building a mosque and said the first prayers would be held there within two weeks.

The move drew international criticism and concern, including from Greece, the United States and Russia, as well as UNESCO, which is now reviewing the structure’s World Heritage Site status.

Turkish Foreign Minister Mevlut Cavusoglu said Ankara was surprised by UNESCO’s reaction and would let it know of further steps to be taken regarding Hagia Sophia, which was a Byzantine church for nine centuries before the Ottomans converted it to a mosque.

Turkey is sensitive about protecting its historical character, he said. “We have to protect our ancestors’ heritage. The function can be this way or that way – it does not matter,” Cavusoglu told state broadcaster, TRT Haber.

On Monday, the leader of Italy’s far-right League party, Matteo Salvini, led a demonstration outside the Turkish consulate in Milan to protest against the decision.

“I would stop every kind of financial aid to the Turkish regime, and I would terminate once and for all any hypothesis of Turkey entering the European Union because we have given more than 10 billion euros to a regime that transforms churches into mosques and I think they have gone over the limit,” he said.

Salvini’s protest came a day after Pope Francis said he was “very saddened” by Turkey’s decision.

In response to the pope’s remarks, Celik told a news conference in Ankara that the biggest disrespect to Hagia Sophia in history had been committed by the papacy.

He said Orthodox Christians and Hagia Sophia had suffered for years during a “Latin invasion” led by the papacy in the 13th century, when Crusaders pillaged the cathedral.

Turkish foreign ministry spokesman Hami Aksoy on Monday said Hagia Sophia is an internal matter and no country can interfere in Turkey’s sovereign matters.

“Hagia Sophia will continue to embrace everyone with its new status, preserving the common cultural heritage of humanity,” he said, according to an Anadolu Agency report.

 

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