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Erdogan Plans Controversial Quran Reading at UNESCO Site

FILE - A worker in a protective suit disinfects Sultanahmet square, with Hagia Sophia in the background, in response to the spread of coronavirus disease (COVID-19) in Istanbul,Turkey, March 21, 2020.

For over a thousand years, Istanbul's Hagia Sophia operated as the biggest Greek Orthodox Christian church before being converted into a mosque, then a museum and, most recently, a United Nations-designated cultural landmark.

At the direction of Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan, a reading of the Quran will take place Friday at the ancient building.

In announcing his decision, Erdogan said the Conquest Sura, a section of the Quran, would be recited at the site, and that prayers would also be held as part of a celebration organized by the country's culture ministry in commemoration of the fall of the Byzantine empire in 1453.

FILE - Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan listens during a teleconference with his cabinet in Istanbul, May 11, 2020.
FILE - Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan listens during a teleconference with his cabinet in Istanbul, May 11, 2020.

Whether followers will be allowed to pray inside Hagia Sophia or around the massive structure, or across its sprawling courtyard, remained unclear.

Erdogan's announcement comes as Turkey, among the countries hardest hit by the coronavirus, moves Friday to ease restrictions as death and infection rates from the pandemic have plummeted, according to state statistics.

Still, the Quran recital has angered the neighboring Greeks, the former keepers of the monument.

"Any move to change the existing status of Hagia Sophia, as safeguarded by UNESCO, cannot be accepted," Deputy Foreign Minister Miltiades Varvitsiotis said. "The monument has long relinquished its religious character ... and any attempt to alter its status will isolate Turkey even further," he told the Athens-based Real FM radio station.

Pundits, politicians and the press condemned the move Friday, as national television networks topped news bulletins with developments on what they called a "provocation" by Ankara.

"It is obvious that Erdogan is playing to his local audience with this move," Deputy Defense Minister Alkiviadis Stefanis said. "But for us, the Greek nation, it is a move that touches on sensitive chords: our religious and national sentiments."

History of Hagia Sophia

Built in the sixth century, the Hagia Sophia, which means Holy Wisdom in Greek, was converted to a mosque soon after the Ottomans conquered what was then called Constantinople, 567 years ago. When the Ottoman Empire collapsed, hundreds of years later, secular Turkish leaders transformed the mosque into a museum in 1935.

FILE - An aerial view of the Byzantine-era monument of Hagia Sophia in Istanbul, Turkey, April 24, 2020.
FILE - An aerial view of the Byzantine-era monument of Hagia Sophia in Istanbul, Turkey, April 24, 2020.

A masterpiece of Byzantine architecture, the building features an immense dome propped on massive pillars. It is sheathed with marble and decorated with mosaics.

With the Turkish economy stuttering, analysts suggest Erdogan's play on Hagia Sophia aims to rally his electoral base, fulfilling a longstanding demand by hardline Islamists in his country bent on converting the UNESCO landmark back into a mosque.

"This is an act of desperation and will lead to no good," said Elmira Bayrasli, director of the Globalization and International Affairs program at Bard College.

Heightened tensions

Erdogan's announcement comes as relations between Greece and Turkey have taken a turn for the worse.

While both NATO allies, Greece has been aggressively boosting its border security since Ankara fanned what Greek officials have called "a migrant offensive," allowing over 150,000 refugees to travel freely into Europe.

Turkey has since then also sent exploratory ships to drill in areas of the eastern Mediterranean, which Greece and Cyprus claim exclusively their own. Mock dogfights between Greek and Turkish fighter jets have also become a daily occurrence over the Aegean Sea that divides the two countries, heightening fears of an accident and all-out offensive between the traditional enemy states.

"In just one day this week, we had to send up 62 jet fighters to intercept Turkish aircraft in Greece airspace," said Stefanis.

It was not immediately clear whether Greece would seek recourse with the United Nations or in other international fora to block the Quran readings from proceeding at Hagia Sophia on Friday.

Still, opposition lawmakers in Athens are advising a more tempered stance by the government, saying a reading of the Quran does not explicitly constitute prayer or any semblance of disrespect for the 1,000-year-old monument.