Pope Francis said Sunday he was “very distressed” over Turkey’s decision to convert the Byzantine-era monument Hagia Sophia back into a mosque.
“My thoughts go to Istanbul. I’m thinking about Hagia Sophia. I am very distressed,” the pope said in the Vatican’s first reaction to a decision that has drawn international criticism.
The Vatican newspaper Osservatore Romano had on Saturday carried reaction from different countries about Friday’s decision to turn the monument from a museum back into a mosque but without any comment.
A magnet for tourists worldwide, the Hagia Sophia was first constructed as a cathedral in the Christian Byzantine Empire but was converted into a mosque after the Ottoman conquest of Constantinople in 1453.
President Recep Tayyip Erdogan, who critics say is chipping away at the Muslim-majority country’s secular pillars, announced Friday that Muslim prayers would begin on July 24 at the UNESCO World Heritage site.
In the past, he has repeatedly called for the stunning building to be renamed as a mosque and in 2018, he recited a verse from the Koran at Hagia Sophia.
Erdogan’s announcement came after a top court cancelled a 1934 cabinet decision under modern Turkey’s secularising founder Mustafa Kemal Ataturk to preserve the church-turned-mosque as a museum.
Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan announced Friday that the Hagia Sophia, one of the architectural wonders of the world, would be reopened for Muslim worship as a mosque, sparking fury in the Christian community and neighbouring Greece.
His declaration came after a top Turkish court revoked the sixth-century Byzantine monument’s status as a museum, clearing the way for it to be turned back into a mosque.
In an address to the nation, Erdogan said the first Muslim prayers at the Hagia Sophia would be performed on July 24.
“God willing, we will perform Friday prayers all together on July 24 and reopen Hagia Sophia to worshipping,” he said, assuring that it would open its door to all, including non-Muslims.
“Like all our mosques, the doors of Hagia Sophia will be wide open to locals and foreigners, Muslims and non-Muslims.”
The UNESCO World Heritage site in historic Istanbul, a magnet for tourists worldwide, was first constructed as a cathedral in the Christian Byzantine Empire but was converted into a mosque after the Ottoman conquest of Constantinople in 1453.
Last year, 3.8 million tourists visited the monument.
The Council of State, Turkey’s highest administrative court, unanimously cancelled a 1934 cabinet decision to turn it into a museum and said Hagia Sophia was registered as a mosque in its property deeds.
The landmark ruling could inflame tensions not just with the West and Turkey’s historic foe Greece but also Russia, with which Erdogan has forged an increasingly close partnership in recent years.
‘Millions of Christians not heard’
Greece swiftly condemned the move by Muslim-majority Turkey as a provocation while the United States also expressed disappointment.
“Greece condemns most firmly” the decision, said Prime Minister Kyriakos Mitsotakis, saying it “does not only impact relations between Greece and Turkey but also the latter’s relations with the European Union, UNESCO and the global community as a whole.”
For Greek Culture Minister Lina Mendoni, “the nationalism displayed by Erdogan… takes his country back six centuries.”
The Russian Orthodox Church was equally scathing.
“The concerns of millions of Christians were not heard,” Church spokesman Vladimir Legoida told Interfax news agency.
The decision “shows that all pleas regarding the need to handle the situation extremely delicately were ignored,” he said.
UNESCO chief Audrey Azoulay said she “deeply regrets” the decision made without prior dialogue with the UN’s cultural agency.
US State Department spokeswoman Morgan Ortagus stated that “we are disappointed by the decision by the government of Turkey to change the status of the Hagia Sophia.”
The move was also condemned by the US Commission on International Religious Freedom as an “unequivocal politicisation” of the monument.
Erdogan urged everyone to respect Turkey’s decision and said the issue of what purposes Hagia Sophia would serve “concerns Turkey’s sovereign rights.”
Hagia Sophia, which stands opposite the impressive Sultanahmet Mosque — often called the Blue Mosque — has been a museum since 1935 and open to believers of all faiths.
Transforming it from a mosque was a key reform under the new republic born out of the ashes of the Ottoman Empire.
Shortly after the court decision, Erdogan signed a presidential decree handing over the administration of “Hagia Sophia Mosque” to Turkey’s religious affairs directorate known as Diyanet.
Erdogan has in recent years placed great emphasis on the battles which resulted in the defeat of Byzantium by the Ottomans, with lavish celebrations held every year to mark the conquest.
Muslim clerics have occasionally recited prayers in the museum on key anniversaries or religious holidays. In 2018, Erdogan himself recited a verse from the Koran at Hagia Sophia.
“The decision is intended to score points with Erdogan’s pious and nationalist constituents,” said Anthony Skinner of the risk assessment firm Verisk Maplecroft.
“Hagia Sophia is arguably the most conspicuous symbol of Turkey’s Ottoman past –- one which Erdogan is leveraging to strengthen his base while snubbing domestic and foreign rivals,” he told AFP.
A few hundred Turks carrying Turkish flags gathered outside Hagia Sophia shouting “Chains broken, Hagia Sophia reopened”.
Police heightened security measures around the building, according to AFP journalists. Hundreds of worshippers performed evening prayers outside the building after the alteration to its status.
“It’s been a dream since we were kids,” said Erdal Gencler, an Istanbul resident.
“(Hagia Sophia) finds its true purpose again. We are very excited, proud, and hopeful that there will be beautiful services here,” he added.
Fatma, a woman with tears in her eyes, said: “Of course I am crying. (Hagia Sophia) belongs to us.”
The Council of State had on July 2 debated the case brought by a Turkish group — the Association for the Protection of Historic Monuments and the Environment, which demanded Hagia Sophia be reopened for Muslim prayers.
Since 2005, there have been several attempts to change the building’s status. In 2018, the Constitutional Court rejected one application.
Turkey on Thursday dismissed as “groundless” allegations by France that Turkish frigates had been “extremely aggressive” towards a French navy vessel participating in a NATO mission in the Mediterranean.
“It is clear the allegations are groundless and deliberate,” said a senior Turkish military official who did not wish to be named, after the French defence ministry on Wednesday denounced the frigates’ action as “unacceptable by an ally”.
France said its sailors were trying to check a cargo ship on suspicion it was taking arms to Libya — forbidden under a UN embargo.
Turkish frigates carried out radar targeting three times, suggesting a missile strike was imminent, the unnamed French defence ministry official said.
But the Turkish military official said the French vessel conducted a “high-speed and dangerous manoeuvre… that was in violation of safety rules at sea and NATO procedures”.
The Turkish ship only “observed the vessel with the camera integrated into the fire-control radar”, the official said, as a safety measure.
“There was no communication relay from the French ship to our ship during the incident.”
Turkish authorities have detained 402 people over “baseless and provocative” social media posts about the coronavirus pandemic, the interior ministry said on Monday.
The official said some of the posts in question included claims that a lockdown would last longer than all-day weekend curfews announced by the government and accusations that authorities were lying about the number of deaths.
“In the past 42 days, 6,362 social media accounts have been analysed, and 855 suspects have been confirmed while 402 have been caught,” the ministry tweeted.
The figure is separate from the detention of 410 people over similar claims at the end of March, a ministry official clarified to AFP.
More than 1,000 Algerian passengers are stranded at Istanbul airport because of the new coronavirus pandemic, the facility’s operator said Tuesday, as Ankara urged Algiers to allow their return home.
Algiers is refusing to let them back into the country, according to IGA Airport Operations.
“We, as IGA, Turkish Red Crescent, Turkish Airlines and Havas (bus company) have been trying to satisfy the humanitarian needs and requirements of over 1,000 Algerian visitors for several days now,” the operator said in a statement on Twitter.
“The Turkish government has been making efforts for a week now to persuade the Algerian government to grant landing rights for the affected flights.”
The North African country had confirmed 201 COVID-19 infections and 17 deaths as of Monday.
Turkish Health Minister Fahrettin Koca announced late Tuesday the death toll in Turkey had reached 44 while the number of cases increased by 343 to 1,872 in total.
Istanbul police fired tear gas Sunday to prevent hundreds of women marching on the city’s central avenue on International Women’s Day after authorities ban the march for the second year running.
Riot police were trying to disperse the crowds at the popular Taksim Square, close to Istiklal Avenue where the women wanted to march, an AFP correspondent said.
There was a heavy police presence and demonstrators were met by a wall of officers. The situation was calm until the women tried to enter the avenue and officers intervened.
The women marching chanted feminist slogans and some carried placards including: “Trans women are women”, “Abuse cannot be forgiven or excused” and “Long live the feminist struggle”.
Last year’s march was also banned and police fired tear gas at thousands of women on the central avenue, despite a peaceful demonstration in 2018.
The Istanbul governor’s office earlier on Sunday said all roads leading to Taksim Square and Istiklal Avenue would be closed.
The issue of women’s rights is often on the news agenda following high profile femicides, and critics accuse President Recep Tayyip Erdogan’s Islamic-rooted government of not taking violence against women seriously enough.
One killing that had a particular impact was the murder of 38-year-old Turkish woman Emine Bulut at the hands of her former husband in August 2019.
She was killed in front of her 10-year-old daughter.
In 2019, 474 women were killed in murders linked to their gender, according to the women’s rights group “We Will Stop Femicide”, compared with 440 in 2018 and 210 in 2012.
Turkey on Sunday announced the launch of an offensive against the Moscow-backed Syrian regime, as Ankara put pressure on Europe by opening its border for migrants to seek passage to the continent via Greece.
Tensions have soared between Russia and Turkey — who back opposing forces in Syria’s civil war — after an airstrike blamed on Damascus killed dozens of Turkish soldiers in Idlib last week.
Turkish and Syrian military exchanged fire over the weekend with Syrian forces targetting a Turkish drone and artillery and Ankara claiming to have shot down two Syrian fighter jets.
The situation in rebel-held Idlib was already volatile as the regime supported by Russian air power pressed an assault on the region, killing hundreds of civilians, in a bid to retake the last opposition enclave in an eight-year civil war.
The confrontation between the Russia-backed Syrian military and NATO-member Turkey, which supports Syrian rebels, has prompted worries over a wider conflict and a migrant crisis in Europe similar to 2015.
Migrant numbers have already surged along the rugged frontier after Turkey’s President Recep Tayyip Erdogan, seeking to pressure the EU over Syria, said the country had “opened the doors” to Europe.
Greece said Sunday it has blocked nearly 10,000 migrants at its border with Turkey.
As migrant boats continued to land on Greek islands, Turkish Defence Minister Hulusi Akar announced the first confirmation of a full and continuing operation against Damascus.
“Following the heinous attack on February 27 in Idlib, operation ‘Spring Shield’ successfully continues,” Akar said in a video shared by the defence ministry.
Turkish forces hit Syrian regime positions after Erdogan warned Damascus would “pay a price” for the air strike that killed 34 Turkish troops inside Idlib on Thursday.
Under a 2018 deal with Russia meant to bring calm to Idlib, Turkey has 12 observation posts in Syria — but several have come under fire from Syrian President Bashar al-Assad’s forces.
Turkey on Friday said it retaliated by hitting more than 200 Syria regime targets in drone and artillery bombardments.
Turkey wants the international community to establish a no-fly zone over Idlib, where Islamist fighters backed by Ankara pose the biggest obstacle to Damascus seizing back control over all of Syria.
Planes shot down
Syrian state media reported that Turkey targeted two regime planes over Idlib.
SANA also reported the regime shot down a Turkish drone near the town of Saraqeb, publishing footage of an aircraft tumbling from the sky in flames. That could not be immediately confirmed.
The Turkish defence ministry confirmed one of its drones was shot down and two other anti-aircraft systems had been destroyed.
It added two SU-24 regime planes that were attacking Turkish aircraft were downed.
The latest violence has raised tensions between Moscow and Ankara, but Ankara insists Turkey did not wish to clash with Russia.
Turkish media reported on Sunday that Erdogan and Russian President Vladimir Putin would meet in Moscow on March 5.
Earlier on Sunday, Istanbul police detained the editor-in-chief of the Turkish version of Russia’s Sputnik website as its offices were being searched in Istanbul.
Three of its journalists were also taken to a courthouse in Ankara for questioning, likely related to a Sputnik article in English claiming Turkey’s Hatay province was “stolen” from Syria. Colonial power France ceded the southern region to Turkey in 1938.
The news website later said they had been released.
The Russian and Turkish foreign ministers spoke by telephone on Sunday, Moscow’s ministry said, to discuss preparations for the meeting between Putin and Erdogan, and the safety of the Sputnik journalists.
Some 13,000 migrants have amassed at the Turkey-Greece border, including families with young children who spent the night in the cold, the International Organization for Migration said.
An estimated additional 2,000 migrants arrived at the Pazarkule border gate Sunday, including Afghans, Syrians and Iraqis, according to an AFP reporter.
But as the crowds rushed to enter Europe, Greek police and soldiers blocked 9,972 “illegal entrances” from entering the northeastern Evros region in the past 24 hours, a Greek government source said.
The UN refugee agency spokesman Babar Baloch called for “calm and easing of tensions on the border,” as he urged countries to “refrain from the use of excessive and disproportionate force”.
European Commission chief Ursula von der Leyen on Saturday said the EU was watching “with concern” and stood ready to deploy its Frontex border guard agency.
The developments recalled events in 2015 when over a million migrants fled to Europe, mainly via Greece in what became the continent’s worst refugee crisis since the Second World War.
The EU’s commissioner for migration, Margaritis Schinas, tweeted Sunday he had requested an extraordinary meeting of EU interior ministers to discuss the situation.
Erdogan said Turkey, home to some 3.6 million refugees, did not plan to close the borders because “the (EU) should keep its promises”.
He was referring to the 2016 deal with Brussels to stop the flow of refugees in exchange for billions of euros.
French President Emmanuel Macron has called for Turkey and Russia to implement a lasting ceasefire in Syria’s Idlib province in conversations with the two countries’ leaders, the Elysee said.
Moscow-backed Syrian forces have since December led a military offensive against the final major rebel stronghold, where Ankara supports some rebel groups.
Macron expressed his “very strong concern about the unfolding humanitarian crisis” to Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan and Russian leader Vladimir Putin, according to a statement released on Saturday.
He also warned of the risk terrorist groups would spread “because of the military offensive of the Syrian regime and its allies,” adding it undermined the 2018 Idlib agreement between Russia and Turkey to create a demilitarised zone in the northwestern province.
A Turkish official said Saturday that Turkey destroyed a chemical warfare facility after dozens of its soldiers were killed by Syrian regime fire in the last-rebel enclave of Idlib province.
The Turkish army destroyed overnight “a chemical warfare facility, located some 13 kilometres south of Aleppo, along with a large number of other regime targets,” the senior official told reporters on condition of anonymity.
However, the Syrian Observatory for Human Rights, which relies on sources inside the war-torn country, said that Turkey instead hit a military airport in eastern Aleppo, where the monitoring group says there are no chemical weapons.
Thirty-three Turkish soldiers were killed in an air strike by Russian-backed Syrian regime forces in the Idlib region on Thursday, the biggest Turkish military loss on the battlefield in recent years.
The latest incident has raised further tensions between Ankara and Moscow, whose relationship has been tested by violations of a 2018 deal to prevent a regime offensive on Idlib.
As part of the agreement, Ankara set up 12 observation posts in the province but Syrian President Bashar al-Assad’s forces — backed by Russian air power — have pressed on with a relentless campaign to take back the region.
On Friday, President Recep Tayyip Erdogan spoke by phone with his Russian counterpart, Vladimir Putin, in a bid to scale down the tensions.
Erdogan may travel next week to Moscow for talks, according to the Kremlin.
Depite being on opposite ends, Turkey, which backs several rebel groups in Syria, and key regime ally Russia are trying to find a political solution to the Syria conflict.
Turkish Interior Minister Suleyman Soylu said Sunday eight people were killed in eastern Turkey after a 5.7 magnitude earthquake hit neighbouring Iran, the official Anadolu news agency reported.
He said three of the dead were children, adding that some other people were believed to be trapped under the rubble.
Turkish broadcaster NTV showed images of damage in several villages in Van province on the Iran border.
“Search and rescue efforts are ongoing,” Soylu said.
Health Minister Fahrettin Koca said 21 people were injured and eight of them were in critical condition, according to Anadolu.
The epicentre of the quake, which struck at 9:23 am (0553 GMT), was near the Iranian village of Habash-e Olya, less than 10 kilometres (six miles) from the border, according to the US Geological Survey.
The earthquake had a depth of six kilometres, according to Tehran University’s Seismological Centre.
It injured at least 25 people and damaged a number of houses in four villages of Iran’s West Azerbaijan province, Mojtaba Khaledi, a spokesman for the country’s emergency services, told AFP.
Anadolu said the quake caused damage in several villages in Van province.
The province was struck earlier this month by two avalanches which killed 41 people.
In 2011, an earthquake measuring 7.1 hit near the cities of Van and Ercis in eastern Turkey, killing more than 500 people.