Greece irked by Turkey’s Hagia Sophia, Aegean aggressions

Greek officials expressed frustration with Turkey this week following a controversial assertion from Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan and Turkish fighter jets’ harassment of Greek Prime Minister Alexis Tsipras over the Aegean.

The Greek foreign ministry is preparing a strongly worded response after Turkish fighter jets on Monday sought to harass the helicopter transporting Tsipras across the eastern Aegean to the island of Agathonisi to mark the anniversary of Greece’s 1821 uprising against Ottoman rule, Katherimini reported on Tuesday.

State-run ANA-MPA news agency reported that Tsipras was in a Chinook helicopter when two Turkish F-4 fighters approached, violating Greek airspace. The Chinook flew lower to avoid the Turkish fighters, which were intercepted by Greek F-16 jets.

Foreign ministry sources said Athens wants to highlight the incident, especially after Ankara denied it happened, according to SKAI TV. “I was harassed by Turkish planes that forced the helicopter I was on to take evasive action, and for what purpose?” Tsipras said.

Athens also expressed opposition to Erdoğan’s Sunday comments that the Hagia Sophia, a Byzantine-era cathedral that is now a museum, might be reconverted into a mosque. "This is not unlikely," said Erdoğan, who has increasingly embraced nationalist and pro-Islam rhetoric in the lead-up to Turkey’s March 31 local elections. “We might even change its name to Hagia Sophia Mosque.”

Built in 537 as the seat of the Orthodox Church, Hagia Sophia (Holy Wisdom) was one of the wonders of the Medieval world and is seen as the epitome of Byzantine architecture. After Ottoman forces led by Sultan Mehmet conquered the city in 1453, it was converted into a mosque -- and remained so until 1935, when Mustafa Kemal Atatürk’s vision for a secular Turkey led to its conversion to a museum, open to all.

There have been increasing calls for Turkey’s government to convert the symbolic structure back into a mosque, said Katherimini, especially in the wake of reports that the gunman who killed Muslim worshippers in New Zealand left a manifesto saying the Hagia Sophia should be free of minarets.

“It is not only a great temple of Christendom — the largest for many centuries — it also belongs to humanity. It has been recognized by UNESCO as part of our global cultural heritage,” Greek Foreign Minister George Katrougalos said on Monday, according to Katherimini. “So any questioning of this status is not just an insult to the sentiments of Christians, it is an insult to the international community and international law.”