Greece denounces Turkey for reciting Quran in Hagia Sophia

(Updates with statement from Turkish Foreign Ministry on paragraphs 7-8)

Turkish religious officials reciting a chapter from the Quran in Istanbul’s Hagia Sophia was an “unacceptable attempt to alter the site’s designation as monument,” the Greek Foreign Ministry said in a statement.

An official from Turkey’s Religious Affairs Directorate (Diyanet) recited the Quran’s Conquest Surah (chapter) inside Hagia Sophia as part of celebrations for the anniversary of Istanbul’s conquest on Friday.

Hagia Sophia was a marvel of engineering at the time of its construction as a Greek Orthodox cathedral in 537. It was turned into a mosque by Ottoman Sultan Mehmet the Conqueror in 1453 after he conquered the city, and has served as a museum since 1935 under the Republic of Turkey.

The recitation in “a global monument protected by UNESCO as a world heritage site,” was an “affront to the religious sentiment of Christians throughout the world,” Greek daily Kathimerini quoted the ministry statement as saying.

The ministry called on Turkey to “respect its international obligations,” referring to UNESCO conventions, and “stop putting domestic expediencies ahead of its very privileged role as guardian of a monument as important as Hagia Sophia, which belongs to all of humanity.”

Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan on Thursday had announced the recitation, which was met with applause in Islamist circles as a step forward in the long-standing demand to turn the museum into a mosque.

Turkish Foreign Ministry Spokesman Hami Aksoy responded by saying, “Hagia Sophia will remain an important value for Turkey and for humanity, and will continue to be protected. We invite Greece to free itself from its historical complexes.”

Greece, which has “the only capital without a mosque in Europe,” Aksoy’s statement published on the ministry’s website said, “continues to make futile statements that will not lead anywhere, every time the Holy Quran is recited in Hagia Sophia.

Tensions between Greece and Turkey were already running high before the Hagia Sophia debate flared again, over Turkey pushing Syrian refugees towards the European Union via its border with Greece and the country’s efforts in the eastern Mediterranean for gas and oil exploration, which includes a maritime deal with Libya and research missions off the coast of Cyprus.