Court ruling converting Turkish museum to mosque could set precedent for Hagia Sophia

The Anastasis (Resurrection) fresco at the Kariye Museum, formerly the Chora Church, in Istanbul © Till Niermann

The stunning mosaics of Istanbuls 1,000-year-old Chora Church are at risk—not from vandalism or theft but a legal order to transform the museum back into a mosque.

The Church of St Savior in Chora, which was converted into the Kariye Mosque in the early 16th century by an Ottoman vizier, has served as a museum since 1958. Its 14th-century frescos and mosaics are regarded among the worlds finest examples of Byzantine art.

Turkeys Council of State, the countrys top administrative court, ruled last month that the historic cabinet decision that made Kariye a museum was unlawful because a mosque “cannot be used except for its essential function”. Now, President Recep Tayyip Erdogan is expected to implement the courts verdict or issue a new regulation to protect its status, according to Yeni Safak newspaper.

The ruling has repercussions for other monuments from Turkeys Christian past, especially the Hagia Sophia, Christendoms greatest cathedral for a millennium before Constantinoples conquering Ottoman sultan, Mehmed II, claimed it as his imperial mosque in 1453. In 1934, the Turkish republics secularising founder, Mustafa Ataturk, made Hagia Sophia a museum in a goodwill gesture towards the West.

The Chora Church has served as the Kariye Museum since 1958 © Gryffindor

Despite the risk of international opprobrium, Erdogan vowed in March to re-consecrate Hagia Sophia as a mosque, in an ultimately futile attempt to win his conservative party control of Istanbul in this years mayoral election.

Islamists have long prayed for both the Chora Church and the Hagia Sophia to reopen as mosques, arguing that their neutral status is an affront to the Ottoman caliphs decrees forbidding other uses.

The two sites are inscribed on Unescos World Heritage list, which recognises the “architectural masterpieces” of Istanbul. The agency has said in the past that changes in status of the citys historic monuments would undermine their heritage value. A Unesco spokesman did not immediately respond to a request for comment on the Council of State ruling.

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