Biden adviser criticised for soft stance during Hagia Sophia spat

A U.S.-based Greek diaspora organisation rebuked a senior adviser to Democratic presidential candidate Joe Biden on Monday for not taking a stronger stance against Turkey’s efforts to revert Istanbul’s Hagia Sophia museum into a mosque.

Antony Blinken said last week that Biden had been long committed to preserving cultural and religious sites such as the divisive historic landmark.

“The Hagia Sophia is a (UNESCO) World Heritage site and shared sacred space for people of many faiths, which is why it's so important to ensure continued access for all visitors,” Blinken said on Twitter.

The Hellenic American Leadership Council (HALC) criticised Blinken’s comments, saying Biden’s team had enough experience with the Turkish government to realise Thursday’s statement was “not strong enough”.

“We appreciate Joe Biden’s commitment to cultural and religious sites, but ensuring access to all visitors isn’t what is at stake here. After all, ‘visitors’ can go to the Blue Mosque,” the organisation said, referring to the Sultan Ahmet Mosque opposite the Hagia Sopha.

The Hagia Sophia, originally built as a cathedral of the Eastern Roman Empire in 537, was converted into a mosque by Ottoman Sultan Mehmet the Conqueror in 1453 after he conquered the city.

The site has served as a museum since 1935 after the founding of Turkey’s republic, however President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan has repeatedly suggested over the years to turn it into a mosque again to fulfil a long-standing demand by Turkish Islamists, much to Greece’s ire.

“Erdoğan is trying to score political points by erasing Hagia Sophia’s Christian past,” HALC said.

U.S. Secretary of State Mike Pompeo and his department’s envoy for international religious freedom, Sam Brownback, have both urged Ankara to keep the Hagia Sophia as a museum.

HALC argued on its Twitter thread that Pompeo and Brownback were both clear in calling on Turkey to “do the right thing”.

“So it shouldn’t be too much to ask someone with great experience in foreign policy, in international religious freedom and in the treachery of Erdoğan to directly call out Turkey for this divisive political stunt,” it said.

Turkey’s highest administrative court, the Council of State, is expected to rule by July 17 on whether to change the Hagia Sophia’s status.