Turkey condemned by Brussels after converting former Christian cathedral into a mosque

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The bloc’s foreign affairs ministers have called on Recep Tayyip Erdogan to reverse the the repurposing of the celebrated Istanbul museum. Turkey’s authoritarian leader announced his decision last Friday following a court ruling which annulled the Unesco World Heritage site’s museum status. The Hagia Sophia was built 1,500 years ago as an Orthodox Christian cathedral, but was converted into a mosque after the Ottoman conquest in 1453.

The landmark spent more than 900 years as the religious centre for the world’s Eastern Orthodox Christians.

EU foreign affairs chief Josep Borrell said: “The European Council has condemned Turkey’s decision to convert such an emblematic monument as Hagia Sophia back into a mosque.

“This decision will inevitably fuel mistrust, promote renewed division between religious communities and undermine our efforts at dialogue and cooperation.

“There was broad support to call on the Turkish authorities to urgently reconsider and reverse this decision.”

Ahead of the meeting, Luxembourg foreign affairs minister Jean Asselborn said the move was a setback in the country’s relationship with the EU and Turkey’s place in the world.

“It is a blow against the Alliance of Civilisations,” he said.

“With this gesture, Turkey erased this development.”

The UN-backed Alliance of Civilisations was founded in 2005 following an initiative by Spanish prime minister Jose Luis Rodriguez Zapatero and President Erdogan to support intercultural and interreligious dialogue.

The Hagia Sophie is set to open to Muslim worshippers on July 24, the first since a ban on religious events was introduced after the Ottoman Empire was abolished following the end of the First World War.

Mustafa Kemal Ataturk, the founder of modern Turkey, ordered the landmark to be turned into a museum and celebrated as a symbol of Istanbul’s multicultural heritage.

Islamists in Turkey have long called for the venue to be reconverted into a mosque while secular opposition members opposed the move.

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Unesco voiced dismay at Turkey’s decision, claiming it was made without prior discussions.

Its director-general Audrey Azoulay said: “Hagia Sophia is an architectural masterpiece and a unique testimony to interactions between Europe and Asia over the centuries.

“Its status as a museum reflects the universal nature of its heritage, and makes it a powerful symbol for dialogue.”

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Ernesto Ottone, assistant director-general for culture, added: “It is important to avoid any implementing measure, without prior discussion with Unesco, that would affect physical access to the site, the structure of the buildings, the site’s moveable property, or the site’s management.”

The latest flashpoint comes in a long list of disputes between Brussels and Ankara.

The two sides have previously exchanged fiery words after a breakdown in their migration pact ended with President Erdogan threatening to open the gates to Europe for 50,000 refugees.

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