The Turkish decision to transform the former basilica into a mosque Santa Sofia, an important place for the Orthodox church, is experienced as a “provocation” in Greece and can further strain relations between the two countries, stress Greek officials and analysts.
“This new provocation by Turkey, which is directed not only at Greece but at the West, further affects relations” between the two countries, Konstantinos Filis, director of the Greek Institute of International Relations, told AFP.
The State Council, Turkey’s highest administrative jurisdiction, revoked on Friday a 1934 measure that confers Santa Sofia the museum statute. Soon after, Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan announced that the former Byzantine basilica would be open for Muslim prayers as a mosque on Friday, July 24.
The announcement sparked international reactions from Washington to Paris via the Vatican, but especially from Orthodox countries like Greece and Russia.
Pope Francis said this Sunday at the end of the Angelus prayer, that his “thought goes to Istanbul. I think of Hagia Sophia. I am very sorry”.
Greek Prime Minister Kyriakos Mitsotakis “strongly condemned” the Turkish decision. In addition to “its impact on Greek-Turkish relations”, the decision “Affects Turkey’s relations with the European Union (EU), Unesco, and the world community”, he pointed.
LIna Mendoni, Greek Minister of Culture, described the Turkish decision as “provocation to the civilized world”.
Sunday, eThe head of the Greek Orthodox Church, Monsignor Ieronymos, denounced “the instrumentation of religion for partisan or geopolitical purposes.”
For Konstantinos Filis, this decision “has a double message”: one towards the interior of Turkey where the president has low popularity, and the other towards the West.
Filis underlines “Turkey’s aggressiveness for a year in the region: its attempts to exploit energy resources in the southeast Mediterranean, followed by the invasion of northern Syria and recently in Iraq, as well as its interference in the conflict in Libya “
Neighboring countries and both members of NATO, Greece and Turkey have experienced tense relations in their history, aggravated in recent years by the immigration issue.
“Without a doubt, the decision on Hagia Sophia was not necessary, since Istanbul is not without mosques (…)”, stresses the historian Christina Koulouri. “This decision has a particular symbolism and serves to put pressure on Europe, where the conflict between Christianity and Islam is an important factor in European identity,” adds Koulouri.
The capture of Constantinople by the Ottomans in the 15th century is “a historical break with Europe, which represents the Christian world, and remains in the collective unconscious,” he adds.
Architectural work of great importance, built in the 6th century by the Byzantines who crowned their emperors there, Santa Sofia It was classified as a world heritage by Unesco.
For Greece, Hagia Sophia is identified with Constantinople, as the Greeks continue to call Istanbul. “The Byzantine Empire is a constituent element of the Greek identity, history and religion of the country, a link between Greek Antiquity and contemporary Greece,” says Koulouri.
Converted into a mosque after the capture of Constantinople by the Ottomans in 1453, Hagia Sophia was transformed into a museum in 1934 by the first President of the Turkish Republic, Mustafa Kemal Ataturk, who “offered it to humanity”.
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