Like its larger neighbor Hagia Sophia, Istanbul’s historic Chora Church is being converted from a museum to a mosque. On Friday, Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan issued an edict, formalizing the move that had been approved by the country’s State Council near the end of 2019.
No details have been released yet about how tourists can see the building’s Byzantine mosaics and frescoes. As with the Hagia Sophia, which officially became a mosque again last month, Christian artwork within Chora will likely be covered by curtains during Muslim prayers.
Chora Church: A Medieval Masterpiece
The Church of the Holy Saviour in Chora was originally built in the fourth century, near the city walls of Constantinople. The Greek Orthodox worship site was rebuilt in the 11th century and again in the 12th, following an earthquake. During the 1300s, artwork depicting biblical stories was added throughout the church’s interior.
After the Ottomans conquered Istanbul, the building was converted into a mosque. As with the Hagia Sophia, Chora Church was converted into a museum (also known as the Kariye Museum) by Mustafa Ataturk, Turkey’s modern-day founder, as part of his secularization efforts.
After World War II, U.S. art historians launched a major restoration project of the church’s artwork, which had suffered damage from frequent earthquakes in the area. Chora Church, which has been designated as a UNESCO World Heritage site, had been open as a museum ever since.
Erdogan’s Moves Are Being Criticized
News of historic Turkish churches being converted from museums to mosques has led to quick backlash by some Western nations and church officials. But according to Persecution.org, Turkish media, “most of which is state-run,” has been praising the recent moves. Erdogan supports the country’s Muslim population, and persecution among Turkish Christians has been on the rise.
Greece’s president and other leaders issued statements condemning Chora’s new status. President Katerina Sakellaropoulou called it “another provocative act” that distorts the character of another World Heritage Site “while undermining interfaith and intercultural dialogue.” Culture Minister Lina Mendoni says converting Chora Church to a mosque is “an insult to global cultural heritage.”
Greece’s Ministry of Foreign Affairs issued a statement calling the decision “absolutely reprehensible” and “another challenge to the religious people everywhere and to the international community that respects the monuments of human civilization.” Saying Chora Church is being “brutally offended,” the ministry urges Turkey “to return to the 21st century of mutual respect, dialogue, and understanding between cultures.”
Leaders in the Greek Orthodox Church also condemn the decision. Archbishop Elpidophoros of America tweeted, “After the tragic transgression with Hagia Sophia, now the Monastery of Chora, this exquisite offering of Byzantine culture to the world!” He added, “The Turkish people do not deserve such a narrow-minded policy. The pleas and exhortations of the international community are ignored. How long?”
Nabila Massrali, the European Union’s spokesperson for Foreign Affairs & Security Policy, also spoke out against Chora Church’s conversion. “As a member of the Alliance of Cultures,” she notes, “Turkey is committed to interfaith and intercultural dialogue and the promotion of tolerance and coexistence.”