Is the endgame of Greek-Turkish relations underway?

by Antonis D. Papagiannidis

A long-awaited decision of Turkey’s Supreme administrative Court annulled the (1934) Mustapha Kemal edict making a museum of the Hagia Sophia 6th century Byzantine cathedral, that had been converted to a mosque following the (1453) Ottoman conquest of Constantinople: a deeply symbolic move of diving into the multi-layered past so as to cut the continuity of a secular Turkey. Promptly on the step of the Court decision, an edict of President Recep Tayyip Erdogan reinstated the function of a mosque – prayers will be said on Friday July 24the from within Hagia Sophia, until now a UNESCO World Heritage site.

Erdogan, in a televised speech last Friday, declared that “like all our mosques, the doors will be open to everyone – Muslim or non-Muslim”. Also stressing that “as the world’s common heritage, Hagia Shophia with its new status will keep embracing everyone in a more sincere way”. Erdogan’s spokesman Ibrahim Kalin, speaking to Anadolu – the official Turkish news agency – made it clear that the Christian mosiacs and frescoes in the building would be preserved (special lighting would ensure that they would not contrast with Muslim ritual), “so a loss from the world’s heritage does not arise”. Earlier efforts to bring about a change in Hagia Sophia status to a mosque – in 2005-08 and in 2016-18 – had not succeeded.

For UNESCO , “deeply regretting” the change, “Hagia Sophia is a unique testimony of the interaction between Europe and Asia […] its status as a museum reflects the universal nature of this heritage and makes it a powerful symbol for dialogue”: such statements were of no avail for the decision to convert the Christian monument to a mosque.

All around the world, Turkey’s decision was condemned in increasingly strong terms – from East (Moscow Patriarchate) and West (the U.S., France, the EU) alike. Turkish Nobel-prize winning author Orhan Pamuk was quoted saying that “millions of secular Turks are crying against this, but their voices are not heard”.

The language of condemnation was especially strong from Greek political and religious authorities – as could be expected.

Still, President Erdogan did not miss the chance to ascertain that this move “makes it obvious who has the authority to do [that]”, asking the rhetorical question: “Are you ruling Turkey, or us?” Hami Aksoy, spokesman of Turkey’s Foreign Affairs Ministry declared “astonishment” at (inter alia) strong American pronouncements over the issue.

The Muslin prayer to be recited in Hagia Sophia on July 24the will be the one recounting the conquest of Constantinople/Istanbul by Mehmed II/ Fatih Sultan Mehmet.

The fact that Ankara chose – at the end of a long and rather hesitant course – to finally proceed on the Hagia Sophia matter, just when geopolitical tensions in the Eastern Mediterranean are at a high point, when its economy is in dire need of outside support and when Greek-Turkish relations are reaching breacking point (tugging along EU-Turkey relations) should not be underestimated. Seen from Athens, the real question: “Is the endgame of Greek-Turkish relations underway?”.

With one additional trap for Greek politics: if at some near turn Ankara calls for bilateral talks – some days ago, Greek PM Mitsotakis was on the phone with Turkish President Erdogan – could Athens respond with the Hagia Sophia blow that recent? And if the Greek side finds itself bound in a position of “nobody talks to pirates”, will such a stance be understood by less concerned actors of the international system?