War of words between Turkey, Greece over Hagia Sophia

Church bells tolled in mourning across Greece.
Saturday 25/07/2020
A protester holds a sign outside of a church during a gathering in Thessaloniki, Greece, July 24, against turning the historic Hagia Sophia site in Istanbul to a mosque. (AFP)
A protester holds a sign outside of a church during a gathering in Thessaloniki, Greece, July 24, against turning the historic Hagia Sophia site in Istanbul to a mosque. (AFP)

ISTANBUL -  Following the holding of Islamic prayers at the ancient Istanbul site of Hagia Sophia, for the first time in nine decades, Greece once again denounced Ankara’s transformation of the site into a mosque while the Turkish foreign ministry accused Greek authorities of “enmity towards Islam”.

Greek criticism of the Turkish move has been scathing, underlining tense ties between Greece and Turkey. Church bells tolled in mourning across Greece on Friday as Turkish President Tayyip Erdogan joined prayers at the building.

“Greece showed once again its enmity towards Islam and Turkey with the excuse of reacting to Hagia Sophia Mosque being opened to prayers,” Turkish Foreign Ministry spokesman Hami Aksoy said in a written statement on Saturday.

Aksoy “strongly condemned” the burning of the Turkish flag in Thessaloniki, and accused the Greek government and parliament of “provoking the public with hostile statements”.

The UNESCO World Heritage site was originally the Byzantine Empire’s main cathedral before its conversion into a mosque after the Ottoman conquest of Constantinople in 1453.

Ataturk, the founder of modern Turkey, ordered Hagia Sophia to be turned into a museum in 1934 but Turkey’s highest administrative court on July 10 said the building was registered in property deeds as a mosque, allowing Ankara to change its status once more.

Worshippers attend afternoon prayers at visit Hagia Sophia Grand Mosque in Istanbul, July 24. (AFP)
Worshippers attend afternoon prayers at visit Hagia Sophia Grand Mosque in Istanbul, July 24. (AFP)

Friday’s ceremony sealed Erdogan’s ambition to restore Muslim worship at the site, which most Greeks view as central to their Orthodox Christian religion.

On Friday, Greek Prime Minister Kyriakos Mitsotakis called Turkey a “troublemaker”, and the conversion of the site an “affront to civilisation of the 21st century”.

He said what was happening in Istanbul was “not a show of force, but proof of weakness”.

In Brussels, one of the EU’s most senior officials warned that Ankara was undermining its ties with Europe.

“As a Greek, I’m quite bitter. I’m feeling quite angry about it,” European Commission vice-president Margaritis Schinas told a press briefing.

“I think that Turkey at a certain point should decide what their geopolitical stance should be, and who they want to align themselves with in the future,” warned Schinas, going further than the EU’s statements of concern to date.

“Will Turkey want to work along with the European Union and base themselves on European values? And, if that’s the case, what’s happening today with the Hagia Sophia is really a bad starting point.”

Greece and Turkey disagree on a range of issues from airspace to maritime zones and ethnically split Cyprus.

This week they also exchanged barbs over the delimitation of their continental shelves in the eastern Mediterranean, an area thought to be rich in natural resources.

Last November, Erdogan has clinched a maritime demarcation deal with the Islamist-controlled Libyan Government of National Accord drwaing fsea border lines that are favourable to Turkey.

Experts see Erdogan’s move to turn Hagia Sophia back into a mosque as an attempt to galvanise his conservative and nationalist voter base amid economic uncertainty exacerbated by the virus outbreak.

The timing of the first Hagia Sophia Friday prayer is significant as it coincided with the 97th anniversary of the Treaty of Lausanne, which set modern Turkey’s borders after years of conflict with Greece and Western powers.

Critics accuse Erdogan of harbouring dreams of restoring Turkey’s Ottoman grandeur through a militaristic strategy of expansion.