Culture and Tourism Minister Yalçın Topçu has said he wished for the Hagia Sophia museum in Istanbul to be reopened to prayers for Muslims.
“Opening the Hagia Sophia to prayers [for Muslims] is my personal dream, my goal, my ambition. Although there are several debates over its judicial status, the issue is more of a political debate,” said Topçu, who was nominated as culture and tourism minister in the interim government by Prime Minister Ahmet Davutoğlu
ahead of the snap polls scheduled for Nov. 1.
Topçu, the former chair of the Islamist-nationalist Great Union Party (BBP), was a surprising name in the new cabinet.
“There is an international dimension too, because the symbolic meaning of the Hagia Sophia is great. The final decision will be given by this nation rather than the world. A referendum might be the most serious solution,” he said.
He also said demands for the museum to become a mosque again have been reflected as a “radical demand” by the media.
“The number of people who were politically lynched over their demands for the Hagia Sophia should not be underestimated. Some media organs reflect this demand as ‘a radical demand.’ For instance, these media organs praise the opening of the Akdamar Church to religious ceremonies in line with the freedom of religion, but they change their stance when the issue is about the Hagia Sophia,” he said.
The Akdamar (Akhtamar) Church in the southeastern city of Van was reopened to occasional prayers in 2010 after a hiatus of nearly 100 years. Turkish authorities restored the church on Lake Van between 2005 and 2007 before opening it as a museum. The Divine Liturgy was celebrated there for the first time in 95 years in 2010.
“There are conflicting stances on this issue. Our ministry does not have the authority to give the decision to reopen the Hagia Sophia [as a mosque]. Its legal dimension is wide. I don’t find it right to turn this issue into a polemic and abused. As a Muslim Turkish person, if I had to express what is in my heart, it would make me very pleased to reopen such a meaningful place to prayers,” he added.
On Aug. 31, Topçu told broadcaster A Haber that “his heart” wanted to see the Hagia Sophia as a mosque again, revealing that one of the first documents he signed as Turkey’s new culture minister was to inquire into the legal aspects regarding the possibility of such a conversion.