The issue of Hagia Sophia’s status is not an international matter but is a matter of national sovereignty for Turkey, Foreign Minister Mevlüt Çavuşoğlu said Thursday.
Çavuşoğlu told a live broadcast on NTV that Turkey will make the final decision on the status of Hagia Sophia, whether it will be reconverted into a mosque or remain as a museum. The popular site was previously converted into a mosque after the Conquest of Istanbul in 1453.
The foreign minister criticized Greece for comments on the matter, as he said the Greek government should not be talking about minority rights and religious freedoms when it consistently violates such principles.
"Greece is one of the last countries to lecture the world on minority rights as it is the only country in Europe without a mosque in its capital and has penalized minority religious authorities in Western Thrace for holding Friday prayers," Çavuşoğlu said. He continued by noting that the Turkish minority in the area cannot even refer to themselves as Turks and the Greek government has been sentenced three times for violating their rights.
Çavuşoğlu said Turkey’s top administrative court Council of State will independently make its final decision on July 2 regarding the matter.
The Hagia Sophia, one of the world’s most important historical and cultural heritage sites, was built in the sixth century during the Christian Byzantine Empire and served as the seat of the Greek Orthodox Church. It was converted into an imperial mosque with the Ottoman conquest of Istanbul in 1453. The structure was converted into a museum during the strictly secular single-party rule in 1935, but there have been discussions about converting it back to a mosque, with public demand to restore it as a place of worship gaining traction on social media.
Touching upon the recent maritime deal between Italy and Greece, Çavuşoğlu said Turkey is not concerned about it as it does not involve the Eastern Mediterranean or the Aegean Seas, where Turkey has shores.
"Their deal has proven the validity of Turkey’s argument on such maritime deals," he said, noting that Greece had been demanding all islands, islets and rocks to be treated as the mainland, but they accepted Turkey’s argument in the Aegean and Mediterranean seas in their agreement with Italy.
The Greek Cypriot administration unilaterally declared its Exclusive Economic Zone (EEZ) on March 21, 2003, all around Cyprus island, ignoring the Turkish Republic of Northern Cyprus (TRNC) and Turkey's rights as if it is the only owner of the island. It has already made EEZ agreements with Egypt and Israel, respectively, in 2003 and 2010. The Greek Cypriot administration, which continued its attempts in this period, declared 13 offshore exploratory drilling blocks in its so-called EEZ on Jan. 26, 2007, and started to announce licensing rounds off the shore of Cyprus, which received several bids, for exploration and drilling at these sites.
Turkey and the TRNC objected to all of these unilateral actions and asked the Greek Cypriot administration to cease their offshore activities until a comprehensive settlement was agreed upon. As a reaction, Turkey made a continental shelf delimitation agreement with TRNC on Sept. 21, 2011.
On Nov. 27, Ankara and Libya’s United Nations-recognized Government of National Accord (GNA) signed two separate pacts, one that encompasses military cooperation and the other maritime boundaries of the two countries in the Eastern Mediterranean.
The maritime pact, effective from Dec. 8, asserted Turkey's rights in the region in the face of unilateral drilling by the Greek Cypriot administration, clarifying that the TRNC also has rights to the resources in the area.
Regarding the Egypt-led cease-fire calls, Çavuşoğlu said their call is stillborn and “not genuine” because it did not involve the legitimate government in Libya.
“If you had the power to convince Haftar to accept a cease-fire, then why didn’t you make him accept it in Berlin?” Çavuşoğlu said, adding that Haftar has completely lost his legitimacy and the GNA is the only legitimate authority in Libya.