ATHENS, GREECE - Turkey’s decision to revert the historic landmark, Hagia Sophia, to a mosque has sparked global outrage. But perhaps more than anywhere else, it has touched a nerve in Greece. The government in Athens is trying to mobilize international support for sanctions to be imposed against Turkey.
The Greek government has billed the move to turn Hagia Sophia a mosque again a provocation and a grave historic mistake. Foreign Minister Nikos Dendias said leading diplomats are scrambling to block Turkish President Tayyip Erdogan’s decision and that the coming week will be pivotal in that pursuit.
Dendias said it’s becoming increasingly clear that Erdogan is bent on reviving the Ottoman era, asserting himself and Turkey as the kingmaker of the region, and defying both international law and codes of conduct.
He said Greek diplomats would be teaming up in a round of crisis talks in the next few days, to chart out a course of action on the recasting of Hagia Sophia.
An architectural masterpiece, the massive 1,500-year-old structure was the seat of Eastern Christianity for a thousand years before Ottoman Turks conquered its host city, then known as Constantinople.
The conquest marks one of the darkest moments of Greek history, leading to the persecution of thousands of Christian Armenians, Assyrians and Greeks. Hagia Sophia was converted to a mosque and many of its stunning religious mosaics were removed or painted over.
Helene Ahrweiler, a Greek and world authority on Byzantine history said history is repeating itself.
Erdogan’s decision, she said, marks a second fall of the Byzantine empire. Ahrweiler said the move is such an affront to Christianity that she would not be shocked to learn that the marvelous mosaics left on the temple’s walls have started shedding tears over it.
From Pope Francis in the Vatican to Patriarch Kirill in Russia, to the White House, to the Kremlin, the move has sparked a huge outcry.
But Greece is going a step further, trying to rally international support for sanctions against Erdogan and his government.
Constantinos Filis, an expert in international relations, said it's unlikely Athens will find the backing it wants from its U.S. and EU allies.
He said it’s a Turkish domestic decision. And while Greeks may feel offended by it, he said, Athens cannot take any form of unilateral action -- it needs a bloc of allies by its side.
Fillis said it’s questionable whether the European Union or U.S. President Donald Trump would be willing to go to bat for Greece on this issue and risk a rift with Turkey’s leader.
In recent days, though, leading European leaders have started to consider Greece’s call for sanctions, as Erdogan announced plans to proceed with controversial energy drilling in the eastern Mediterranean.
Turkey said it may start the drilling in the next few days, just before it opens Hagia Sophia for public prayers.
Greek government sources told VOA that Germany is trying to defuse the growing tensions by trying to bring Greek and Turkish representatives to the negotiating table.
But the stakes remain high, and Greece isn’t taking any chances. Foreign Minister Dendias said the Greek military is already on high alert, fearing even a spark of conflict from Turkey.
Greece is ready to defend its rights and sovereignty to the full, he said, adding that it’s not a matter for negotiation.