Liturgy at Hagia Sophia plan stirs Tension


A group of Greek Americans and Greeks are planning to arrive in İstanbul today for a religious service at the Hagia Sophia, a former Greek Orthodox patriarchal basilica which is now a museum, despite Turkish officials’ statements that it will not be allowed to take place.

The group, a crowd of about 250 people consisting mostly of Greek Americans, is expected to depart from Greece to Turkey today to hold Divine Liturgy at the Hagia Sophia (known as the Ayasofya in Turkish). Turkish diplomats had earlier contacted Greek and American authorities in a bid to prevent the trip, sources told Today’s Zaman on Thursday, telling them that the Hagia Sophia is not a place of worship and that the planned liturgy could lead to provocations that may in turn harm the Turkish government’s efforts to expand freedoms for Turkey’s non-Muslim minorities.

The İstanbul-based Greek Orthodox Patriarchate has already declared that it was opposed to the liturgy, planned by the US-based International Congregation of Hagia Sophia, which aims to restore the site to a place of worship.

The Hagia Sophia served as the cathedral of Constantinople until İstanbul was conquered by the Ottoman Empire in 1453. It was then turned into a mosque and then into a museum in 1935. Worshipping in the historic building has been forbidden since then.

Turkish authorities have told Greek and US officials, as well as representatives of the Greek Orthodox group, that worshipping at the Hagia Sophia is not allowed under Turkish laws and warned that security forces might have to intervene if members of the group insist on holding the liturgy for disrupting public order, officials explained. An intervention at the border gate was also not ruled out, as officials said their entry into Turkey could be barred if group members refuse to cross the border one by one.

Chris Spirou, the president of the International Congregation of Hagia Sophia, first announced the plans to hold a liturgy in May and said Turkish Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdoğan has been invited to the planned service. The invitation was made in a 2009 letter, he said. However, it did not include any request for permission.

In remarks to the Greek press, Spirou said the group was not seeking a “war” and that their aims were purely religious. “If we are not allowed to enter the Hagia Sophia, then we will have the service outside the Hagia Sophia and we will return immediately after that,” he told the Athens news agency.

The Hagia Sophia controversy comes on the eve of a historic religous service that is set to take place at an ancient Armenian church in Van on Sunday.

17 September 2010, Friday