Turkish government to decide whether to reconvert ancient church into mosque

The Turkish government is to decide whether to act on a court verdict that would allow it to turn a 4th century Byzantine church into a mosque, a move that could open the way to also converting the giant 6th century former cathedral, Haghia Sophia, into a Muslim place of worship.

After serving as a church for more than 1,000 years, the Chora Church, or the Church of the Holy Saviour, was, like many of the Byzantine capital’s Christian places of worship converted into a mosque when Ottoman forces captured the city in 1453. 

But the church, home to celebrated Byzantine mosaics and frescos, was then turned into a museum in 1945, in accordance with the secular vision of the new republic founded by Mustafa Kemal Atatürk after the defeat and collapse of the Ottoman Empire in 1923.

The giant cathedral of Haghia Sophia stands on the site of one the earliest churches to be built after the Roman Emperor Constantine converted to Christianity in the 4th century, and, until St. Peter’s was built in Rome in the 16th century, had for nearly 1,000 years the biggest dome in the world. It was also converted into a mosque in 1453, then into a museum in 1935.

Turkey’s ruling Islamists have long coveted the dream of turning Haghia Sophia back into a mosque and President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan has said such a move might be possible.

The pro-government daily Yeni Şafak said a court had reversed previous rulings and said the Chora church, or Kariye museum, should be used in accordance with its function when it was transferred to Fatih Sultan Mehmet Foundation during the Ottoman period, that is, as a mosque.

The court has submitted its verdict to the Presidency, Yeni Akit said. The pro-government newspaper said the cabinet would decide whether to implement the ruling. The move would likely to cause outrage amongst Orthodox Christians for whom the city of Istanbul is a cradle of their faith and might lead to a precedent that could apply to Haghia Sophia.

The Greek daily Kathimerini said in March that changing the status of Haghia Sophia required the approval of UNESCO, citing sources from the Paris-based organisation.