UNITED NATIONS: UN experts have reminded Turkey that it would be an historic mistake at this difficult global moment to take actions which divide religious and cultural groups in the country and beyond.

The UN statement followed Turkey’s decision early last month to re-designate the historic Hagia Sophia in Istanbul as a mosque. In a report to the United Nations, experts appointed by the UN Human Rights Council urged the Turkish govern­ment to maintain the inter-cultural status of the space, “reflecting the diversity and complexity of Turkey and its history.”

“It would be an historic mistake at this difficult global moment to take actions which divide religious and cultural groups in Turkey and beyond, rather than uniting them”, said Karima Bennoune, Special Rapporteur for cultural rights, and Ahmed Shaheed, Special Rapporteur on freedom of religion or belief. “As someone said, ‘the dome of the Hagia Sophia should be big enough to include everyone’.”

Initially constructed as a Byzantine church, the Hagia Sophia became a mosque for the first time, in 1453 under the Ottoman Empire, and following Turkey’s secularisation in the 20th Century, became a museum in 1934.

The site has been used by people of all faiths, including Christians and Muslims, and non–religious people, and widely celebrated down the decades, as an example of interfaith and intercultural dialogue.

The experts expressed concern that the Turkish government’s decision on 10 July to change the status of the building, and the “hasty implementa­tion of this decision”, may violate Turkey’s obligations under rules derived from the 1972 UNESCO World Heritage Convention, said the experts.

“We share UNESCO’s concern that the transformation of a site of outstanding universal value requires prior notice and consultation with all stakeholders to ensure that the human rights of all are respected”, they said. “The Hagia Sophia is Turkey’s most visited attraction, and is a monument of global importance.”

The experts also stressed the importance of appropriate arrange­ments for the care of the site, following conflicting reports regarding the measures put in place. “We urge the government of Turkey to ensure that cultural heritage experts continue to be responsible for the conservation of this monument. International and technical standards must be fully respected”, the independent experts added.

“We are gravely concerned about the rights of everyone to access and enjoy cultural heritage, interfaith, co-existence and secular spaces, and about the equality and safety of religious minorities, including Christians”, the experts wrote.

The experts also called for tolerance overall, in the hope that opposition to the mosque designation elsewhere in the world, will reflect universal values and non-discrimination, rather than offering a competing monolithic vision which fosters hatred against Muslims.

Published in Dawn, August 4th, 2020