Turkish authorities and the UN cultural agency are on a collision course over the ancient Christian basilicas. UNESCO’s World Heritage Committee said that it “deeply regrets” the lack of "dialogue and information". Turkey dismissed the claim and reiterated its “sovereign rights” over the properties.
Istanbul (AsiaNews) – Turkish authorities and UNESCO[*] are loggerheads again after the latter’s World Heritage Committee (WHC) last December requested a verification of the changes made to Hagia Sophia and Chora following their reconversion into mosques.
In a statement, the Committee said it "deeply regrets the lack of dialogue and information" on the changes to the status quo of the buildings. The Turkish government replied immediately, rejecting any interference in what it deems are internal matters.
The WHC asked Turkey for a report on the changes to the two historic Christian basilicas, after they were reconverted into mosques after a long period during which they operated as museums open to everyone.
During its annual meeting in Fuzhou (China) from July 16 to 31, the WHC called for an "updated report on the state of conservation" of Hagia Sophia, with 1 February 2022 as the deadline for submitting information about Hagia Sophia and Chora.
Despite its concerns for the situation and the lack of dialogue, the Committee expressed hope for better communications with Turkey over its plans relating to the two sites.
In a press release, Turkish Foreign Ministry spokesman Tanju Bilgiç replied that the ongoing works have not had any negative impacts as per UNESCO standards; on the contrary, they have upheld the authenticity and integrity of the buildings.
"Hagia Sophia and Chora are the properties of the Republic of Turkey,” read the communiqué; the buildings “are meticulously conserved in terms of historical, cultural and spiritual value.” Their “functional use” is “solely related to Turkey’s sovereign rights.”
The two ancient Christian basilicas, Hagia Sophia and Chora, were first converted into mosques during the Ottoman era and later secularised and turned into museums following the founding of the Turkish republic by Mustafa Kemal Atatürk in the first part of the 20th century.
Last year, the two churches were reconverted into mosques as part of Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan’s nationalism and Islam policy, designed to hide the country’s economic crisis and maintain his hold on power.
Following the decision that authorised the transformation, Islamic authorities ordered white drapes be placed to cover the images of Jesus, and other frescoes and icons that testify to the buildings’ Christian roots.
The changes to the two UNESCO World Heritage sites in 2020 sparked a major international political-religious controversy.
[*] United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organisation.