Istanbul’s Hagia Sophia may be subject to UNESCO heritage review

UNESCO has stated that it must be notified of any change to the status of Istanbul´s 6th century Hagia Sophia museum so it can be reviewed by its World Heritage Committee, Reuters reported.

“[A] state must make sure that no modification undermines the outstanding universal value of a site listed on its territory,” UNESCO was cited as saying by Reuters on Thursday.

“Any modification must be notified beforehand by the state to UNESCO and be reviewed if need be by the World Heritage Committee,” it added.

Hagia Sophia is on the list of World Heritage sites as a museum. Turkey´s highest administrative court is likely to announce on Friday that the 1934 conversion of the Hagia Sophia to a museum was unlawful, Reuters added in reference to two Turkish officials, paving the way for its restoration as a mosque.

İbrahim Kalın, Turkey’s presidential spokesperson, told state-run Anadolu Agency, that opening Hagia Sophia for Muslim prayers would not deprive it of its identity, as it will always belong to the world´s historical heritage.

“So a loss from the world’s heritage is not in question,” Kalın said. He added that the proposed transformation of Hagia Sophia into a mosque will “not keep local or foreign tourists from visiting the site”.

He also cited the examples of France’s iconic Notre Dame Cathedral and Sacre-Coeur Basilica, world famous churches which are open to both tourists and worshippers.

Kalın also added that Turkey will still preserve the Christian icons in the museum.

Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan said last week that criticism over the possible conversion of the monument - known in Turkish as Ayasofya - was an attack on Turkey’s sovereignty.

Many Turks maintain that a mosque status for the structure would better reflect the identity of country, home to an overwhelmingly Muslim population.

A recent poll that found 73 percent of Turks favour such a transformation.

Many Christians, on the other hand, were comfortable with Hagia Sophia’s status as a museum because this effectively created a neutral space, which respected both the Christian and Muslim heritage of the ancient building.

The prospect of a change in the museum’s status back to a mosque has raised alarm among U.S., French, Russian and Greek officials, as well as Christian church leaders in Turkey.