Turkey continues push to reopen iconic Hagia Sophia church as a mosque

The interior of the ancient Christian church of Hagia Sophia, now a museum, which could be turned into a mosque.Reuters

Turkey's Culture and Tourism minister has said that reopening Istanbul's iconic Hagia Sophia as a mosque is his "personal dream, my goal, my ambition".

Now a museum, the former cathedral which saw the coronation of Byzantine emperors and was at the heart of Orthodox faith for centuries has increasingly become a focus of Turkish Islamist nationalism.

Yalçın Topçu, the former chair of the Islamist-nationalist Great Union Party, made the statement in an interview for Hurriyet Daily News. He said that the move would be politically controversial but that a national referendum might be the solution.

"There are conflicting stances on this issue," he said. "Our ministry does not have the authority to give the decision to reopen the Hagia Sophia [as a mosque]. Its legal dimension is wide. I don't find it right to turn this issue into a polemic and abused.

"As a Muslim Turkish person, if I had to express what is in my heart, it would make me very pleased to reopen such a meaningful place to prayers," he added.

Hagia Sophia, the Church of Holy Wisdom, was founded in AD360 by the Byzantines. The current structure, one of the most remarkable church buildings in the world, was completed in AD 537 under Emperor Justinian. It was turned into a mosque after the Ottoman conquest of Constantinople in 1453 but was closed in 1931. It was turned into a museum in 1935 by the secular Turkish government, but under the increasingly Islamist government of Recep Tayyip Erdogan, nationalists have called for its re-opening as a mosque.

On April 10 a Muslim cleric recited the Qu'ran in the building for the first time in 85 years to mark the opening of an exhibition entitled "Love of the Prophet".

Turkish Deputy Prime Minister Bulent Arinc sparked speculation that its status would be changed when said in November 2013 that he hoped to change the status of the Hagia Sophia, saying it looked "sad" but hopefully would be "smiling again soon".

Turkey's Christian population is small and precariously placed, though Orthodox Christians regard the Ecumenical Patriarchate of Constantinople as the most prestigious of its Churches. Greece reacted furiously to Arinc's comment, saying such statements "are offending the religious feeling of millions of Christians".

In April, Pope Francis' reference to the Armenian Genocide – a term fiercely resented by Turkey, whose troops and armed mobs killed up to one and a half million Armenians in massacres and deportations starting in 1915 – led the Grand Mufti of Ankara, Prof Mefail Hizli, to warn of possible repercussions. He said in a written statement: "Frankly, I believe that the Pope's remarks will only accelerate the process for Hagia Sophia to be reopened for [Muslim] worship."

He described the Pope's comment as a "modern reflection of the crusader wars launched in these lands for centuries", and said that it was a "one-sided take" on what had occurred.