Washington urges Turkey to keep Hagia Sophia as museum

U.S. State Secretary Mike Pompeo on Wednesday urged Ankara to keep Hagia Sophia as a museum, on the eve of an expected recommendation by Turkey’s highest administrative court on whether to revert the UNESCO World Heritage site into a mosque.

The 6th century Greek Orthodox cathedral, which was converted into a mosque by Ottoman Sultan Mehmet the Conqueror in 1453 after he conquered Istanbul, has long been at the heart of an ideological battle between Turkish Kemalists and Islamists.

The monument has served as a museum since 1935 under the founding of Turkey’s Republic, however Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan has repeatedly suggested over the years to turn it into a mosque again to fulfil a long-standing demand by Turkish Islamists.

The United States and neighbouring Greece have both expressed concerns about the bid to restore the mosque status of the building.

Turkey has administered the Hagia Sophia as a museum “in an outstanding manner” for nearly a century, Pompeo said in a written statement.

“We urge the Government of Turkey to continue to maintain the Hagia Sophia as a museum, as an exemplar of its commitment to respect the faith traditions and diverse history that contributed to the Republic of Turkey, and to ensure it remains accessible to all,” he said.

“The United States views a change in the status of the Hagia Sophia as diminishing the legacy of this remarkable building and its unsurpassed ability – so rare in the modern world – to serve humanity as a much-needed bridge between those of differing faith traditions and cultures.”

Turkey's Council of State is slated to meet on Thursday to examine the request for annulment of the presidential decree of 1934 that turned the Hagia Sophia from a mosque into a museum.

A senior official from Erdoğan’s ruling Justice and Development Party (AKP) rebuked Pompeo’s statement, saying the decision on the site’s status will be made by Turkey alone.

“The authority to decide on the status of Hagia Sophia, which is a matter of Turkish sovereignty, is only in the hands of Turkey,” Hürriyet quoted AKP Deputy Chairman Numan Kurtulmuş as saying. “We don't need advice and calls from outsiders.”