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Turkey redesigns an ancient Byzantine church to a mosque

The historic Church of the Holy Saviour in Chora, an outstanding monument of Byzantine iconography that is listed among the masterpieces of UNESCO’s World Heritage List, has been converted into a mosque.

The Chora Church has been a museum for the last 79 years. Following the conversion of Hagia Sophia in 2020, President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan’s government decided to transform the historic church into a mosque. 

The Archons of the Ecumenical Patriarchate expressed their dismay about the decision. The Chora Church was one of the most celebrated Christian sites in Constantinople, as it contained significant mosaic icons and frescoes of the Byzantine iconography.

According to Dr. Özgür Kaymak, a lecturer and researcher on minority rights at Istanbul’s MEF University: “Both Hagia Sophia and Chora embodied Byzantine and Ottoman pasts, and they became symbols of co-existence and multi-faith living practices. Their conversion fundamentally implies a hierarchy, prioritizing the Islamic past over all other layers, Greek Orthodox, Armenian, Jewish, Syriac, etc.”

The Chora Church and Hagia Sophia root from the 4th century Byzantine era. For almost a millennium they both were Christian holy places right until the Ottoman Empire conquered the area and converted them into mosques in 1453. Orthodox Christians still considered them as sacred sites after the invasion. When a secular Turkish government came into power, both buildings became museums in 1945. 

The UNESCO states: “Its mosaics and frescoes, commissioned by the Byzantine humanist and poet Theodore Metochites (14th century) form one of the most complete ensembles of late Byzantine art to survive in Istanbul.”

Christians are worried that unless international human rights organizations intervene, these iconic pieces of history would never be seen again.

Father Evangelos Markantonis, an Orthodox priest stated: “For us it’s a very important place because it remembers our culture and our traditions here. Though we cannot venerate as Orthodox Christians, we have to try to find things we can be united on. Only with dialogue and good deeds can we continue our lives.”

Greece, the U.S. State Department and Orthodox Christian organisations have all denounced the decision to return the church into a mosque.

The Greek Prime Minister Kyriakos Mitsotakis said: “I want to publicly express my intense dissatisfaction, interpreting the feelings of all Greek women and men, for the completely unnecessary conversion of a historic Byzantine temple, the Monastery of Chora, into a mosque. It is, I believe, an action that offends the rich history of Istanbul itself as a crossroads of cultures.”


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