Archdiocese takes first steps before the United Nations over The Republic of Turkey’s reconversion of the Hagia Sophia and other UNESCO World Heritage Site into Mosques
The Greek Orthodox Archdiocese of America announced today that it is petitioning certain United Nations experts to hold the Republic of Turkey accountable for its deliberate policies to erase the cultural heritage of Orthodox Christians.
This petition rebukes the recent unilateral decision of Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan to reconvert United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization (“UNESCO”) World Heritage Sites, Hagia Sophia (“Holy Wisdom”), into a mosque.
At the time of Erdogan’s decision, international criticism followed, including a strong statement by U.S. Presidential candidate Joe Biden and numerous world leaders, including an expression of disappointment from Pope Francis, head of the Roman Catholic Church and the Grand Mufti of Egypt who has stated that the reconversion of the Hagia Sophia is impermissible in Islam.
Commenting on the petition, Archbishop Elpidophoros of America said: “Turkey’s reconversion of the Hagia Sophia into a mosque is a radical misappropriation of the Orthodox Christian cultural heritage and living Christian communities in Turkey. The treatment and change in status of UNESCO World Heritage Sites is a concern for the international community as a whole.”
“The petition explains that by unilaterally changing the status, structure and name of these UNESCO sites, with particular significance to Orthodox Christians, Turkey’s conduct implicates international law, in particular, the obligation to preserve cultural heritage for all of mankind and to respect the political, cultural and religious freedoms of Orthodox Christians in Turkey,” said Christina Hioureas, counsel to the Greek Orthodox Archdiocese of America. Hioureas specializes in public international law and arbitration, including matters before the United Nations and its bodies, and is internationally recognized for her work in the area.
Hioureas explained further that “The Archdiocese hopes that its submission to the UN Special Rapporteurs will prompt the experts to take steps including issuing a joint statement regarding Turkey’s conduct, seeking an investigative visit, and taking other immediate steps to ensure the preservation, protection and transmission of cultural heritage for future generations.”
Built during the Byzantine era in the 6th Century AD by Emperor Justinian I, the Hagia Sophia has significant religious and cultural importance to Christians across the globe and to the international community as a whole. For the previous 86 years, the Hagia Sophia had been designated as a secular museum at the cultural junction of East and West.
In 1985, the Hagia Sophia was inscribed as a UNESCO World Heritage Site and recognized the Hagia Sophia’s status as a museum as worthy of protection and preservation under the Convention Concerning the Protection of the World Cultural and Natural Heritage.
In a statement UNESCO expressed its concerns surrounding the change to Hagia Sophia’s status and called upon Turkish authorities to prevent any detrimental effect on the universal value of this exceptional heritage.
“Hagia Sophia is an architectural masterpiece and a unique testimony to interactions between Europe and Asia over the centuries. Its status as a museum reflects the universal nature of its heritage, and makes it a powerful symbol for dialogue,” said Director-General Audrey Azoulay.
“It is important to avoid any implementing measure, without prior discussion with UNESCO, that would affect physical access to the site, the structure of the buildings, the site’s moveable property, or the site’s management,” stressed Ernesto Ottone, UNESCO’s Assistant Director-General for Culture. Such measures could constitute breaches of the rules derived from the 1972 World Heritage Convention.
The unilateral conversion will be examined by the World Heritage Committee at its next session this upcoming November.
The Archdiocese’s submission was supported by a coalition of concerned non-governmental and interfaith organizations, academic institutions, and experts working for the protection of cultural property and religious freedom, including academics and experts from Stanford University, the University of California Berkeley, Tufts University, Fordham University and UCLA as well as the American Jewish Committee and several hierarchs from various Christian faiths in the United States.
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