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Abu Dhabi, UAEThursday 18 April 2019

Turkey's Recep Tayyip Erdogan considers renaming Istanbul's Hagia Sophia a mosque

The former church and mosque often sparks tensions between Christians and Muslims

People walk past a presidential campaign poster showing incumbent Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan in front of Hagia Sofia museum. AFP
People walk past a presidential campaign poster showing incumbent Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan in front of Hagia Sofia museum. AFP

Calls for Istanbul's Hagia Sophia museum to serve again as a mosque have sparked controversy and caused anger among Christians.

In a televised interview on Sunday, Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan suggested the possibility of renaming the historical building, saying "tourists come and go at the Blue Mosque. Do they pay anything? ... Well, we will do the same with the Hagia Sophia."

Asked whether the entrance fee to the city landmark might be waived, he said: "It's not impossible ... but we would not do it under the name 'museum' but 'Hagia Sophia mosque'."

Praised for its beauty and religious inclusiveness, the museum has for almost 90 years allowed believers of all faiths to meditate, reflect or simply enjoy its architecture.

The former church and mosque, now a museum, often sparks tensions between Christians and Muslims over Islamic activities held there, while also being politicised by historic foes Turkey and Greece Muslim and Christian countries respectively.

Greece has repeatedly expressed concern over efforts to change the museum's status.

Greek Prime Minister Alexis Tsipras visited the Hagia Sophia in February. "You can feel the burden of history here," he told AFP.

President Erdogan — who is currently on his campaign trail for municipal elections on March 31 — has not shied away from using the often disputed building to appeal to some voters. He raised the issue again after the March 15 shootings in two mosques in Christchurch, New Zealand, that killed 50 people.

In speeches he has denounced a passage in the gunman's "manifesto" in which he said the Hagia Sophia would be "liberated" of its minarets.

The Hagia Sophia was first built as a church in the sixth century under the Christian Byzantine Empire as the centrepiece of its capital Constantinople, today's Istanbul.

Almost immediately after the conquest of Constantinople by the Muslim Ottomans in 1453, it was converted into a mosque before becoming a secular museum in a key reform of the new post-Ottoman Turkish authorities under Mustafa Kemal Ataturk in the 1930s.

Ataturk was the founder of the Turkish republic.

Since Mr Erdogan's AKP came to power, critics and advocates of secularism fear the government harbours a hidden agenda to reconvert the Hagia Sophia into a mosque.

But Turkey's top court in September last year rejected an association's demand that the Hagia Sophia be opened for Muslim prayers.

The museum, a UNESCO World Heritage site, receives millions of visitors every year.

Updated: March 25, 2019 01:19 PM

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