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Turkey plans to convert another iconic Byzantine era church into a mosque

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A medieval Byzantine Greek Orthodox church in İstanbul that has been undergoing restoration for several years will be opened as a mosque on February 23 in line with a decree issued by President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan in 2020, the pro-government Yeni Şafak daily reported.

Erdoğan issued a presidential decree in August 2020 that required the transfer of the Chora Church, located in İstanbul’s Fatih neighborhood, to the Religious Affairs Directorate to be opened as a mosque. It was previously operated by the Education Ministry as a museum.

The church, also known as the Church of St. Saviour in Chora and “Kariye” in Turkish, served as a mosque during the Ottoman era following the conquest of İstanbul in 1453. It was converted into a museum by a Cabinet decision in 1945 following the establishment of the Turkish Republic in 1923.

The church, situated near the ancient city walls of İstanbul, is famed for its elaborate mosaics and frescoes. It dates to the fourth century, although the edifice took on its current form in the 11th–12th centuries.

A court decision in 2019 canceled the building’s status as a museum, paving the way for its conversion into a mosque.

In July 2020, Erdoğan issued another decree foreseeing the conversion of the Hagia Sophia, an iconic cathedral with a history dating back more than 1,500 years, from a museum into a mosque in a move that attracted international criticism.

While the Hagia Sophia was immediately turned into a mosque, the conversion of the Chora Church had to be delayed due to the ongoing restoration.

Yeni Şafak said the mosaics and frescoes in the church had been preserved during the restoration and that its floor was covered with specially designed wool carpets to make Muslim prayers possible.

Yeni Şafak’s report found extensive coverage in the Greek media.

The Greek Foreign Ministry had strongly condemned Turkey’s plans for the Chora Church, saying that Turkish authorities “are once again brutally insulting the character” of another UN-listed World Heritage Site.

“This is a provocation against all believers,” the ministry said in a statement. “We urge Turkey to return to the 21st century, and the mutual respect, dialogue and understanding between civilizations.”

Critics accuse President Erdoğan of seeking to attract the support of conservative and nationalist voters by making such moves. They say turning historic Christian holy sites into mosques is an act of disrespect and puts these historic places at risk of damage. They call on Turkey to keep such historic sites as museums in recognition of İstanbul’s multi-faith heritage.

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