In the month of fasting and prayer every day a Muslim imam reads passages from the Koran in the gardens of the former church, now a museum. Heeding the demands of the lunatic fringe, the government wants to turn the building into a mosque. The clash with the Greek government and the strategic relations between Ankara and Athens on immigration.
Istanbul (AsiaNews / Agencies) - There is growing concern about the fate of St. Sophia, the ancient Christian basilica and long-time world heritage museum, which Ankara – heeding the demands of the pro-Islamic fringe - wants to turn into a mosque.
In this month of Ramadan, of fasting and prayer for Muslims, every morning before dawn an Islamic religious leader leads the recitation of verses from the Koran in the gardens in front the famous basilica, followed by dozens of faithful.
Activists, representatives of other faiths and political factions, first among them the Greek government, said the "obsession" with the site is leading to "fanaticism". It is a "world heritage" building and therefore should not be confined to the ceremonies of one religion.
An architectural marvel between the Bosphorus and the Golden Horn, St. Sophia is one of the most important monuments of the country and the world, long the center of a dispute between Christians and Muslims. Built in the sixth century during the Byzantine Empire, for centuries it was basilica where the emperors were crowned. After the Ottoman conquest in 1453 it was converted into a mosque.
The building became a museum under the secular regime of the father of modern Turkey, Mustafa Kemal Ataturk, transformed into a place of contemplation and remembrance for peoples of all faiths in the 1930s.
However, the rise to power in 2002 of the current President Recep Tayyip Erdogan and his AKP party (Justice and Development) has re-launched the project of transforming the museum into a mosque, to make it the symbol of an "Islamized" nation.
Last year, a religious leader recited some verses of the Koran in front of the former church for the first time in 85 years, coinciding with the inauguration of an exhibition. However, the situation has taken a radical twist this year with the start of Ramadan, given the green light from the authorities: public television Divanet TV transmits the reading of the sacred text and the recitation of prayers, led each day by a different Turkish imam.
Local sources confirm that it is an unprecedented use of the Hagia Sophia as a "Muslim place of worship" and this has sparked controversy in the country and among governments in the region, especially among the Greek-orthodox. "This is a kind of obsession - said the Greek Ministry of Foreign Affairs - [...] and reveals a lack of respect and contact with the reality of the facts". Initiatives of this type, adds the government note, "are not compatible with a modern democracy and secular society". This is why the Minister Nikos Kotzias has turned to UNESCO, presenting a formal protest over this use of the museum.
Ankara’s response was immediate, slating the official from Athens statements as "unacceptable". A spokesman for the Turkish diplomacy says that Greece is violating the principles of religious freedom, because for several years he has denied permission for the construction of new mosques in the service of more than 100 thousand Muslims living on Greek territory.
Behind the battle over matters of worship, however, Athens and Ankara does not appear likely to undermine relations - so far good - between the two countries; especially now that both governments must work together on immigration, with the two nations on the front line in the emergency.