‘Regressive bigotry’: Athens outraged as Ankara launches Koran readings at Hagia Sophia

Women take selfie photographs with Hagia Sophia in the background in Istanbul, Turkey © Murad Sezer
Turkish authorities will allow Koran readings at Istanbul’s Hagia Sophia, a former Christian church and mosque which now is a secular museum. Greece slammed the move, with some fearing that Erdogan’s government is taking steps to turn the site back into a mosque.

Verses from the Islamic sacred book will be read at the Byzantine masterpiece daily during the holy Muslim month of Ramadan. The readings which started this Monday will also be broadcast live on Turkish state religious channel TRT Diyanet.

The Greek Foreign Ministry has officially condemned the initiative, calling it “regressive” and a “bigotry.”

“Muslim rituals at the [UNESCO] World Heritage site are incomprehensible, demonstrate disrespect and show lack of contact with reality,” the ministry statement said. Athens also added that “such actions are not compatible with modern, democratic and secular societies.”

Greece’s former minister of foreign affairs and former mayor of Athens, Dora Bakoyannis said that the new Koran readings at Hagia Sophia have “virtually transformed it into a mosque for the first time in 80 years.”

In a joint statement with another chief member of Greece’s largest conservative opposition party, New Democracy, the politician said that Ankara’s move is “provocative” and “shows disrespect against Orthodox Christians across the world and is not in line with Turkey’s European course.”

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Last week, a deputy for Turkey's ruling Justice and Development Party (AKP), Samil Tayyar, suggested that the site should be open for Muslim worship as a response to Ankara’s western partners' recent actions which the government regards as unsupportive. In a widely shared and liked post on Twitter, the Turkish MP said: “Since the United States are siding with the PKK [Kurdistan Workers' Party], and Germany has clung to the [Armenian] genocide lie, friendship has shifted. It’s our turn – [Hagia] Sopia should be open for worship.”

Supporters of a secular Turkey, as well as Orthodox Christians in the world have long feared that Hagia Sophia, which was converted into a museum in 1935 during the reign of progressive Mustafa Ataturk, could be transformed back into a mosque under President Erdogan. A number of Erdogan's supporters within the ruling AKP party have openly suggested the World Heritage site should be given back entirely to Islamic worshipers.