Turkey has come under fire from Greece for allowing daily Ramadan prayers inside Hagia Sophia, a United Nations World Heritage site and museum and one of the most important symbols of Christianity.
Following angry denunciations from Greece’s foreign ministry, Turkey fired back creating a cross-Aegean war of words over religious freedoms and rights.
Mark Toner, the U.S. State Department’s deputy spokesman issued the following statement after the exchange between Greece and Turkey:
“We recognize Hagia Sophia as a site of extraordinary significance and we would encourage Turkey to preserve Hagia Sophia in a way that respects its tradition and also its complex history.”
The leadership of AHEPA, the American Hellenic Educational and Progressive Association– the nation’s largest organization of Americans of Greek descent, also issued a statement protesting the Ramadan prayers at Hagia Sophia and welcoming the State Department’s involvement on the matter.
“Hagia Sophia is a UNESCO World Heritage Site as a component of the Historic Areas of Istanbul. UNESCO created the idea of World Heritage to protect sites of outstanding universal value. Indeed, Hagia Sophia’s value is universal and transcends religion. In addition to Orthodox Christians and clergy, historians, artists and art historians, architects, engineers, archeologists, academicians, authors and journalists all appreciate and value Hagia Sophia.
“Turkey, as a State Party to the World Heritage Convention, is expected to protect the World Heritage values of the properties denoted as such, in this case, Hagia Sophia. Also, UNESCO takes into consideration the protection, management, authenticity and integrity of properties as important parts of the criteria to designate a World Heritage Site.
“In making the decision to allow a daily reading from The Koran during Ramadan in Hagia Sophia, the Turkish government has failed on its commitment as a State Party by diminishing Hagia Sophia’s Christian and Byzantine values, heritage and traditions; and it has furthermore failed by not upholding and adhering to the criteria expected of a State Party by UNESCO.
“With 15 properties on the World Heritage List, Turkey has a responsibility to meet its commitment as a State Party, and AHEPA asks UNESCO to intervene immediately to resolve this misguided decision by the Turkish government.”