Greece criticizes Turkey for converting ancient church to mosque

Athens — Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan has officially dedicated an ancient Byzantine church as a mosque, drawing a protest from Greece. Many Greeks want a summit scheduled for Monday in Ankara between Erdogan and Greek Prime Minister Kyriakos Mitsotakis to be canceled. 

Greece’s criticism centers on the formal opening of the Church of St. Saviour in Chora as a Muslim house of worship, four years after it was converted. The ancient site was a museum before its conversion to a mosque and is a United Nations-protected monument revered for its mosaic masterpieces.

Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan presided remotely over the opening ceremony this past Monday from the presidential palace in Ankara.

While the move to open the site as a mosque has won praise from the Muslim faithful in Turkey, it has angered many Greeks, among them Prime Minister Kyriakos Mitsotakis.

He said Erdogan’s decision is “unnecessary” and an insult.

Speaking after talks Thursday with Greek President Katerina Sakellaropoulou, Mitsotakis said if anything, the church’s conversion is an affront to, as he put it, the rich cultural history that Istanbul has to show for… at the crossroads of many civilizations.

The Church of St. Saviour in Chora is the latest ancient church that Erdogan has converted since ordering Istanbul’s prized landmark, the Hagia Sophia, to be transformed in 2020 to a Muslim house of prayer.  

Analysts view the conversions as part of an attempt by Erdogan to consolidate the conservative and religious support base of his ruling party amid an economic downturn gripping Turkey.

The latest conversion has also drawn criticism from the United States, with the State Department calling on Turkey to preserve the monument’s diverse history and allow access to all visitors.

In Athens, many political leaders are urging Mitsotakis to cancel a meeting he has scheduled with Erdogan for next week as part of a previously agreed plan to ease relations between the longtime foes. 

Nikos Androulakis, the leader of Greece’s socialist party, is among those calling for the talks to be called off.

“There is no way that I would go,” Androulakis said, adding, “This is a provocation.”

The prospect of canceling the talks is a “no-go,” said Mitsotakis.

“It is imperative to keep all channels of communication open,” said Mitsotakis.

He went on to say, “It is much better that I face President Erdogan in person and express my strong opposition to this latest conversion, than allow this matter to spark another crisis between the two countries.” 

Relations between Greece and Turkey have long been strained. The two neighbors and NATO members nearly went to war in 2020 over contested energy reserves in the Mediterranean. They have also been at odds over the divided island of Cyprus; it is split between a Turkish-Cypriot north and a Greek-Cypriot south.

Since 1974, several efforts by the United Nations and the United States to reunite the island have failed.

In recent remarks, Erdogan said all problems can be resolved between Greece and Turkey. In December, Erdogan made an official visit to Greece, where he met with Prime Minister Mitsotakis. They agreed on several measures to ease tensions.

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