UNESCO must be notified of any change in the status of Istanbul’s sixth-century Hagia Sophia museum and the changes may have to be reviewed by its World Heritage committee, the United Nation’s cultural body said on July 9.
Turkey’s top administrative court is likely to announce on July 10 that the 1934 conversion of the Hagia Sophia into a museum was unlawful, two Turkish officials said, paving the way for its restoration as a mosque.
UNESCO told Reuters that the Hagia Sophia was on its list of World Heritage Sites as a museum, and as such had certain commitments and legal obligations.
“Thus, a state must make sure that no modification undermines the outstanding universal value of a site listed on its territory,” UNESCO said.
“Any modification must be notified beforehand by the state to UNESCO and be reviewed if need be by the World Heritage Committee,” it added.
UNESCO said it had expressed its concerns to Turkish authorities in several letters and conveyed the message to Turkey’s ambassador to the institution on Thursday.
“We urge Turkish authorities to start a dialog before any decision is taken that could undermine the universal value of the site,” UNESCO said.
The World Heritage site was at the centre of both the Christian Byzantine and Muslim Ottoman empires, and is today one of Turkey’s most visited monuments.
The prospect of a change in the museum’s status back to a mosque has raised alarm among U.S., French, Russian and Greek officials as well as Christian church leaders.
At issue is the legality of a decision taken in 1934, a decade after the creation of the modern secular Turkish republic under Mustafa Kemal AtatÜrk, to turn the ancient building into a museum.
“We expect the decision to be an annulment (and) the verdict to come out on Friday,” a senior Turkish official told Reuters.
An official from President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan’s ruling AKP also said the decision “in favor of an annulment” was expected on July 10.
Pro-government columnist Abdulkadir Selvi wrote in the Hürriyet newspaper that the court had already made the annulment ruling and would publish it on July 10.
“This nation has been waiting for 86 years. The court lifted the chain of bans on Hagia Sophia,” he wrote.
The association that brought the case said Hagia Sophia was the property of Ottoman Sultan Mehmed II, who in 1453 captured the city, then known as Constantinople, and turned the already 900-year-old Byzantine church into a mosque.
Ecumenical Patriarch Bartholomew, the spiritual head of some 300 million Orthodox Christians worldwide and based in Istanbul, said a conversion would disappoint Christians and “fracture” East and West. The head of Russia’s Orthodox Church said it would threaten Christianity.
U.S. Secretary of State Mike Pompeo and Greece have also urged Turkey to maintain the museum status.
But Turkish groups have long campaigned for Hagia Sophia’s conversion, saying it would better reflect Turkey’s status as an overwhelmingly Muslim country.