Orthodox group begs Trump to ‘save’ Hagia Sophia from mosque conversion

An Orthodox group has sent a letter to U.S. President Donald Trump calling on him to intervene to prevent Turkey from turning the Hagia Sophia into a mosque, the Christian website Aleteia said.

Anthony J. Limberakis, National Commander of the Order of Saint Andrew the Apostle, Archons of the Ecumenical Patriarchate, implored Trump to work to prevent “this sacrilegious and unnecessary decision,” in a letter dated June 17.

The Hagia Sophia, originally built as a Byzantine cathedral in 537, was turned into a mosque following the Ottoman conquest of Istanbul on May 29, 1453, and then became a museum in 1935 under Mustafa Kemal Atatürk’s presidency.

Over the years, Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan has repeatedly suggested turning the UNESCO World Heritage Site into a mosque again to fulfil a long-standing demand by Turkey’s Islamists, much to Greece’s consternation.

Turkey's highest court is set to rule on the Hagia Sophia’s status on July 2.

Hagia Sophia “rightly became a museum in 1935, a monument of the human spirit and a living symbol of respect for all faiths,” Limberakis said in his letter to Trump. “To convert it into a mosque now would be to repudiate that respect and deny the Hagia Sophia’s origin as a church dedicated to Jesus Christ and as a sacred place, a part of our collective heritage.”

In May, Erdoğan said hoped to open the Hagia Sophia to Muslim worship. A Muslim prayer was held at the site on May 29 to mark the anniversary of the Ottoman conquest of Istanbul. Abdülhamit Gül, Turkey’s Justice Minister, told Anadolu news agency on June 15 that the move was “a matter of sovereignty” and reflected the “common wish” of all citizens.

The Ecumenical Patriarchate of Constantinople, when contacted by Aleteia, said on June 18 that it did not have a comment. 

The Roman Catholic bishops’ conference of Turkey on Thursday said it would not contest any decision to change its status, which it said was Turkey’s to make.

“Although we would wish Hagia Sophia to retain its character as a museum, it isn't for us to intervene or even give our opinion on a decision which solely concerns the Republic of Turkey,” it said. 

Last week, the Armenian Patriarch of Constantinople proposed that the Hagia Sophia be shared by Christians and Muslims as a place of prayer.

Limberakis warned in his letter to Trump that the plan to turn Hagia Sophia into a mosque challenged religious freedom across the world.

“It is part of ongoing efforts to delegitimise the remaining Christian population of Turkey, further eroding their religious freedom, and to obliterate a significant element of the Christian heritage of Turkey and the surrounding region, as well as of the entire world,” Limberakis said. 

“Converting Hagia Sophia Museum, a UNESCO World Heritage Site, to a mosque would render it the patrimony of one nation, an unjust and provocative act as this historic site truly belongs to the world,” he said.

For some, frequent arguments over subjects such as the names of the city or of the future uses of the Hagia Sophia are tiresome and chauvinistic expressions of rival nationalisms - both Turkish and Greek. 

Nicholas Danforth, senior visiting Fellow at the German Marshall Fund, wrote in Apollo Magazine in 2019 that the Hagia Sophia in particular continues to serve as a vehicle for competing civilisational chauvinisms.

Critics have accused Erdoğan's government of using the planned conversion to boost their support during a time of economic hardships exacerbated by the COVID-19 pandemic.