Turkey may have halted plans to turn Istanbul church into a mosque

Turkey may have scrapped Islamic prayers at a cathedral-turned-museum in Istanbul, the Art Newspaper reported on Monday.

In August, the government ordered the re-conversion of the Church of the Holy Saviour in Chora, called Kariye in Turkish, into a mosque. The millennium-old monument has served as a museum since 1945. The move came shortly after a similar decision to re-convert Istanbul’s Hagia Sophia into a mosque from a museum, despite outcries from the international community.

President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan was slated to attend inaugural prayers at Chora on Oct. 30, but the Directorate of Religious Affairs (Diyanet), the Turkey’s top religious authority, cancelled the event the day before to allow for restoration work, the Art Newspaper said.

Since then, it has been closed and workers removed a mihrab (prayer niche) and screens in November, the Art Newspaper said, citing local shopkeepers. A Diyanet spokesman said that no new opening date was set for the mosque, according to the newspaper.

“The decision to continue with the restoration means they have likely decided against opening Kariye as a mosque,” former Tourism Minister Bahattin Yücel told the Art Newspaper. “The backlash from abroad was a factor. Economic concerns are also at play in the likelihood it stays a museum, as it draws large numbers of religious tourists.”

Çiğdem Kafescioğlu, a historian at Boğaziçi University, told the newspaper she believed that the government was taking its time to re-open Chora so not to risk damaging the museum’s figurative Byzantine imagery when covering them up – something less of a concern when the same was done at the Hagia Sophia.

“My guess is that they’ve gotten a sense of international reactions and are trying to do a more palatable job than the rushed Hagia Sophia opening,” she said. “Instead of viewing it as heritage, policymakers see it through a political lens.”