U.S religious freedom envoy urges Turkey to keep Hagia Sophia as museum

U.S. envoy for international religious freedom Sam Brownback urged Turkey on Thursday to keep the Hagia Sophia as a museum rather than revert it back into a mosque as has been mooted by the government.

“The Hagia Sophia holds enormous spiritual & cultural significance to billions of believers of different faiths around the world,” Brownback, United States Ambassador at Large for International Religious Freedom, said in a tweet.

He called on the Turkish government to keep it as a UNESCO World Heritage site and “to maintain accessibility to all in its current status as a museum”.

Brownback’s tweet comes after Greek Culture Minister Lina Mendoni sent a letter to representatives of UNESCO’s member-states informing them of Ankara’s plans to turn the monument into a mosque, Greek newspaper Kathimerini reported.

Turkey's highest court is set to rule on the Hagia Sophia’s status on July 2.

The Hagia Sophia, originally built as a Byzantine cathedral in 537, was converted into a mosque following the Ottoman conquest of Istanbul on May 29, 1453, later becoming a museum in 1935 during Mustafa Kemal Atatürk’s presidency of the Turkish Republic.

Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan has repeatedly suggested turning the site into a mosque again to fulfil a long-standing demand by Turkey’s Islamists, much to Greece’s consternation.

For some, frequent arguments over subjects such as the names of the city or of the future uses of the Hagia Sophia are tiresome and chauvinistic expressions of rival nationalisms - both Turkish and Greek. 

Nicholas Danforth, senior visiting Fellow at the German Marshall Fund, wrote in Apollo Magazine in 2019 that the Hagia Sophia in particular continues to serve as a vehicle for competing civilizational chauvinisms.

Critics have accused Erdoğan's government of using the planned conversion to boost their support during a time of economic hardships exacerbated by the COVID-19 pandemic.