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Merkel opposes conversion of Hagia Sophia into mosque

German chancellor in meeting with Ecumenical Patriarch Vartholomeos

Turkish Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan's intentions of turning Hagia Sophia into a mosque has stirred the opposition of the German leadership, but also worldwide

German Chancellor Angela Merkel is guided around the Byzantine monument of Hagia Sophia, or Ayasofya, in Istanbul in 2010 (Photo: Reuters) German Chancellor Angela Merkel is guided around the Byzantine monument of Hagia Sophia, or Ayasofya, in Istanbul in 2010 (Photo: Reuters) German Chancellor Angela Merkel expressed consternation over Turkish Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan's plans to convert the famed church of Hagia Sophia in Istanbul from a museum into a mosque, according to a report by Deutsche Welle.

The chancellor reportedly expressed her opposition during talks with Ecumenical Patriarch Vartholomeos, the spiritual leader of 300 million Orthodox Christians world wide, who was on an official trip to Germany.

The visit came a little over a week before crucial European Parliament elections in Germany, which has a Greek community of nearly 400,000, all of whom are under the spiritual jurisdiction of the ecumenical patriarchate.

Built by Byzantine Emperor Justinian in the 6th century, Hagia Sophia was the cathedral of the patriarchs of Constantinople until the city's conquest by the Ottomans, in 1453, who converted it into a mosque, which it remained for almost five centuries.

Kemal Ataturk, the founder of the Turkish republic, turned the church into a museum in 1935.

Vartholomeos has repeatedly expressed his opposition to transforming the current museum into a mosque, as have Christian leaders in Greece and elsewhere.

According to a spate of reports, Erdogan – aside from seeking to convert the church into a mosque – plans to perform Islamic prayers in Hagia Sophia on May 29. the date of the Ottoman conquest.

In return for turning the museum into a mosque, Erdogan is reportedly willing to re-open the patriarchate's Halki seminary, which Ankara shut down in 1971.

Though Vartholomeos has campaigned for decades for the Turkish government to allow the seminary to re-open, he has made clear he rejects any such trade-off.

Beyond Merkel's reported outrage, the German foreign ministry has expressed measured opposition to such a move by Ankara, noting that the monument's operation as a museum "satisfies everyone".

But it also noted that the final decision rests with the Turkish government.

Another German politician who expressed opposition to a change in the museum's status was Green party leader Cem Özdemir, who is German born but of Turkish descent.

"I cannot understand the intention of such an intention. Turkey has no lack of mosques, but rather the contrary. This is a move that would be humiliating for the Christians, and for all the minorities of Turkey," he said.

Ozdemir said that Ataturk's decision to turn the building – then a mosque - into a museum was a smart move. He added that if the building were to be used for Islamic worship, the Ecumenical Patriarch should be allowed to conduct services in Hagia Sophia as well.

Ecumenical Patriarch Vartholomeos (2nd from left) meets German Chancellor Angela Merkel (Photo: German Federal Government/Bergmann) Ecumenical Patriarch Vartholomeos (2nd from left) meets German Chancellor Angela Merkel (Photo: German Federal Government/Bergmann) In a lengthy interview with Deutsche Welle, Vartholomeos expressed doubts that Erdogan will go ahead with his plan.

"I don't think Hagia Sophia of Constantinople will in the end be turned into a mosque, but rather that logic and the real interests of Turkey, which is to keep it as a museum, will prevail," he said.

Vartholomeos noted that Hagia Sophia is a Unesco monument – since 1985 - and that he has discussed the issue with the director director of Unesco, Irina Bokova.

"Today Hagia Sophia is a museum open to the whole world," Vartholomeos said.

"Thousands visit every day, and Turkey has a significant source of income from the tickets. It is not worth Turkey's while to get into such an adventure and clash with the entire Christian world, the entire civilised world," the patriarch argued.

He also stressed that a move to convert the monument into a mosque would trample on the will of Turkey's founder.

"If Hagia Sophia is to become a place to worship God again, it should become a church. It was constructed as a church, not as a mosque. From all perspectives, it is in everyone's interests that Hagia Sophia remain a museum," Vartholomeos concluded.
 

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