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Hagia Sophia prayers ignites war of words between Turkey, Greece

US Rep. Ilhan Omar (D-MN) (L) talks with Speaker of the House Nancy Pelosi (D-CA) during a rally with fellow Democrats before voting on H.R. 1, or the People Act, on the East Steps of the US Capitol on March 08, 2019 in Washington, DC. (AFP photo)
A man raises his arms as people gather outside Hagia Sophia in Istanbul to attend the Friday prayers, July 24, 2020. (Photo by AFP)

Neighboring Turkey and Greece have traded barbs over the disputed conversion into a mosque of the UNESCO World Heritage site of Hagia Sophia in Istanbul, a day after Friday prayers were held in the medieval spot for the first time in nearly nine decades.

The iconic site, now officially known as the Great Mosque of Ayasofya, was constructed in the 6th century AD as a cathedral, during the Byzantine Empire, but was converted into a mosque after the Ottoman conquest of Constantinople in 1453.

In 1934, Turkey’s cabinet declared it a museum. However, on July 10, Turkey’s Council of State, which is the highest administrative court in the country, annulled the 1934 decision, saying the move had been unlawful. 

The court ruling has drawn criticism.

Following the court order, President Recep Tayyip Erdogan said that henceforth the monument would serve as a mosque again. 

Greece, apart from being at odds with Turkey over a number of issues, has been scathingly critical of Ankara’s decision so much so that church bells tolled in mourning across Greece on Friday as Erdogan joined prayers at Hagia Sophia.

“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, carried by Turkey’s official Anadolu news agency, on Saturday.

He also denounced “hostile” statements by Athens and legislators at the Greek Parliament to what he described as stirring up the public.

Aksoy further lambasted the Greek authorities for allowing a Turkish flag to be burned by far-right Greek extremists in the city of Thessaloniki late on Friday.

“We strongly condemn hostile statements made by members of the Greek Government and Parliament provoking the public opinion and allowing the burning of our glorious flag in Thessaloniki,” he said.

“These racist mindsets, who have not drawn the required lessons from history, those who disrespect our glorious flag should remember their fate in the Aegean,” Aksoy said.

In response, the Greek Foreign Ministry said in a statement that “the international community of the 21st century is stunned to observe the religious and nationalist fanatic ramblings of today’s Turkey.”

It also slammed the burning of the Turkish flag, saying the ministry condemned in the “strongest possible terms any act of insulting the national symbol of any country, in this case, Turkey.”

Late last week, Turkish presidential spokesman Ibrahim Kalin said in a television interview that mosaics depicting Mary and Gabriel that face Qiblah, the direction in which Muslims stand while saying their prayers, would be covered with curtains or lasers during the upcoming prayers.

“Our goal is to avoid harming the frescoes, icons, and the historic architecture of the edifice,” the official said.

There are other such mosaics at the site that would not be covered because they do not face Qiblah, he added.

Turkish authorities say the mosque will be open to all visitors outside prayer time and all mosaics will be uncovered.

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