Istanbul mayor questions Hagia Sophia decision as Turks struggle with unemployment

The decision to convert Hagia Sophia back into a mosque may have severe repercussions for Turks abroad and the mosques they use to practice their faith, Istanbul Mayor Ekrem İmamoğlu said in an interview with Cumhuriyet newspaper published on Monday.

İmamoğlu referred to a speech by Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan before the local elections on March 31, 2019, where the president said Hagia Sophia’s conversion could hurt Turkey.

“There is a downside to this. Let us not forget that the cost will be much heavier for us,” Erdoğan had said. “Those who say (Hagia Sophia should be opened for worship as a mosque) do not know the world, or the people they will deal with. As such, as a political leader I have not lost my way so much that I would fall for this trick.”

İmamoğlu asked “what has changed in one year?” What if leaders of (countries where tens of thousands of Muslim immigrants pray in peace) make similar decisions and say they consider criticism of their decisions a direct attack on their sovereignty?”

İmamoğlu urged the Turkish people to decide for themselves whether the country’s top administrative court annulling the 1934 decree that converted the Byzantine monument into a museum in a decision on Friday has been good or bad.

“If the change in Hagia Sophia will contribute material and spiritual riches to my country, if it will solve the troubles of millions of unemployed people and young university graduates, I fully stand behind it,” he said.

The opposition mayor said many of Erdoğan’s supporters were not aware that the Hagia Sophia, originally built as an Orthodox Christian cathedral in 537 A.D., has had the status of a mosque since 1453, the Ottoman conquest of Istanbul, and that the decree turning it into a museum did not strip it of that status.

Calls to prayer have been sung from Hagia Sophia’s four minarets for 30 years, and Muslims have been praying in a special part of the world heritage site, İmamoğlu said.

“If you have sensibilities on this topic, and you still say the first azan will be sung, that is troubling. I was flabbergasted,” he said.

Erdoğan, in an address to the nation on Friday, alluded to parallels between Ottoman Sultan Mehmed’s conquest of the then-Byzantine capital, which earned him the title Mehmed the Conqueror, and his own election as mayor of the city in 1994.

İmamoğlu won a latest election for Istanbul mayor last year, ending more than two decades of rule by Erdoğan’s governing Justice and Development Party (AKP) and its predecessors.