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Group cancels plans for service at Istanbul's Hagia Sophia

ATHENS - Anatolia News Agency | 9/17/2010 12:00:00 AM |

Some 250 Greek-Americans intent on holding a religious service at Istanbul’s Hagia Sophia have canceled their plans for the rite after disapproval from Turkey.

Some 250 Greek-Americans intent on holding a religious service at Istanbul’s Hagia Sophia have canceled their plans for the rite after receiving a strongly worded statement from Turkish authorities.

Chris Spirou, head of the "International Congregation of Agia Sophia" and the leader of the group that had been waiting in the border city of Alexandropoulos to enter Turkey early Friday, said they had received a statement from Turkish authorities noting that the country viewed the group’s intention as provocative.

The group leader, however, said their sole intention had been to pray at the site, which has been closed to worship for 75 years.

He also said the authorities’ statement was tantamount to a restriction of entry into Turkey, but added that the group had decided to abandon its quest after receiving the statement, Spirou said.

The "International Congregation of Agia Sophia" was founded in 2005 and is a U.S.-based non-profit organization. Its goal is to restore the Hagia Sophia as a place of worship.

Turkish Culture Minister Ertuğrul Günay said Thursday that any kind of religious worship at the museum was out of the question.

"The Hagia Sophia is one of the most special places in the world. It has been serving humanity for 1,500 years. In the last century, we have been serving Hagia Sophia," Günay said. "If we allow this, we will have to meet the demands of other communities and religions."

The Turkish government’s efforts to stop the service were coordinated by the Foreign Ministry with the participation of the interior and culture ministries.

Authorities had considered the option of refuse the group entry into Turkey, a Foreign Ministry official told the Hürriyet Daily News & Economic Review Thursday.

Many officials at the İpsala border crossing in Edirne had been warned Thursday night to check for Greek travelers who planned to worship at the museum, reports said.

The Hagia Sophia was built as a church in the sixth century. When Constantinople fell to the Ottomans in 1453, the building was converted into a mosque. Since 1935, however, the edifice has been a museum closed to religious worship.

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