The controversial decision to strip the Hagia Sophia of its status as a symbol of interfaith and intercultural co-operation is yet another hammer blow to EU-Turkish relations.
A controversial decision by a top Turkish court on July 10 revoked the status of Istanbul's 6th century iconic cathedral, the Hagia Sophia (or Sancta Sapientia), turning the building from a museum into a mosque. The Turkish president, Recep Tayyip Erdogan has rebuffed opposition from the US, the EU (particularly Greece and France), Russia and other countries, who have urged Ankara to maintain the site's status as a museum.
The Hagia Sophia is a historic house of worship that has served as a Roman Catholic and Greek Orthodox cathedral, as a mosque and has until now been a museum since 1935. It is included on UNESCO's World Heritage List and has a special significance for Christians. They see it as one of the most important holy monuments and a legacy of a Christian tradition dating back to the Eastern Roman empire.
The decision to alter the designation of the cathedral of Hagia Sophia - a symbol of interfaith and intercultural dialogue - is a new provocation against Europe and undermines the tolerance and credibility of the country.
The previous decade has been marked by a barrage of Turkish provocations in the Aegean Sea. Cyprus and Greece in particular - both member states of the EU - are under continuous threat. Since 2019, we see a culmination of Turkish aggression, particularly after the signature of a memorandum of understanding with the Government of National Accord (GNA) in Libya. This highly-contested deal arbitrarily delineates the maritime borders between the two countries.
Further, the number of violations of Greek national airspace by Turkish military aircraft reached 4,811 in 2019. According to Athens, this is the largest number since 1987. Ankara seems to be driving tensions to a peak and is dangerously flirting with a military incident in the Aegean.
In March this year, thousands of refugees and other migrants tried to get into Greece after Turkey declared that its previously guarded borders with Europe were open. Greek authorities said they have thwarted more than 38,000 attempted border crossings.
In a joint statement, the EU expressed "full solidarity with Greece, which faces an unprecedented situation." They said the EU was determined to protect its external borders. The Turkish military interventions in Cyprus, Syria and Libya are destabilising the whole Eastern Mediterranean region and the Middle East. Ever since an illiterate in international relations took office in the White House in 2016, Ankara has increased its aggressive behaviour in the whole region.
Cyprus, which has had one-third of its territory occupied by Turkey since 1974, said Ankara had "provocatively ignored" repeated warnings from the European Union to cease its illegal drilling for oil and gas off Cypriot waters. Turkey has attempted to drill in Cypriot coastal waters in an area already licensed to Italian oil company Eni and French firm Total.
Erdogan has openly said he wants Turkey to have its own nuclear weapons. The time has come for the EU to take its responsibilities seriously and for its member states show more unity than just solidarity on paper. Josep Borell, the European High Representative of the EU for Foreign Affairs, begged Ankara a few weeks ago to stop interfering in Libya. However, the Turks are sending thousands of soldiers to north Africa, violating a United Nations (UN) embargo every day.
The role of Turkey demonstrates that the EU is not able to guarantee the security of its borders. It is a paradox and shows the extreme weakness of a non-existent European policy for foreign affairs and migration. It shows the inability of finding solutions to vital security problems.
The question is, what are the European capitals going to do in the event of armed conflict? Are they going to fight back or will they look the other way? Reconverting the Hagia Sophia into a mosque is not only an affront to the monument's global significance, but it will also adversely impact Turkey's relations with the EU, the US, Greece, Russia and UNESCO.
It shows that the Erdogan regime has no respect for other religions and is not willing to respect the country's international obligations. The Hagia Sophia must be re-established as a historic monument of exceptional and universal significance, and as a symbol of respect between religions and among people.
- Stavros Papagianneas is the author of the book 'Rebranding Europe' and managing director of Brussels-based StP Communications
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