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GENEVA (31 July 2020) – The Hagia Sophia in Istanbul should be maintained as an inter-cultural space reflecting the diversity and complexity of Turkey and its history, and preserving the outstanding universal value which resulted in its World Heritage Status, say two UN human rights experts.
“It would be an historic mistake at this difficult global moment to take actions which divide religious and cultural groups in Turkey and beyond, rather than uniting them,” said Karima Bennoune, Special Rapporteur in the field of cultural rights, and Ahmed Shaheed, Special Rapporteur on freedom of religion or belief. “As someone said, ‘the dome of the Hagia Sophia should be big enough to include everyone’.”
A former Christian basilica, the Hagia Sophia was built in 537, changed into a mosque in 1453 and became a museum in 1934. The site has been used by people of all faiths, including Christians and Muslims, and non–religious people, and celebrated as an example of inter-faith and inter-cultural dialogue.
The experts expressed concern that the Turkish government’s decision on 10 July to change the status of the building from a museum to a mosque, and the hasty implementation of this decision, may violate Turkey’s obligations under rules derived from the 1972 UNESCO World Heritage Convention.
“We share UNESCO’s concern that the transformation of a site of outstanding universal value requires prior notice and consultation with all stakeholders to ensure that the human rights of all are respected,” they said. “The Hagia Sophia is Turkey’s most visited attraction, and is a monument of global importance.”
The experts also stressed the importance of appropriate arrangements for the care of the site, an issue about which there have been conflicting reports. “We urge the Government of Turkey to clarify the arrangements, and ensure that cultural heritage experts continue to be responsible for the conservation of this monument. International and technical standards must be fully respected,” the experts added.
Language referencing conquest used in the debate about the site heightened the experts’ concerns, as did the display of a sword, that could be construed as a symbol of conquest, by the head of the State Religious Affairs Agency during a high-level prayer service to mark the site’s change in status, last Friday. That event was attended by Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan.
In light of such developments, the experts fear that the change of status of the Hagia Sophia to a monolithic site could reflect a supremacist view of history and culture rather than the meeting of cultures, the spirit which resulted in its World Heritage status, and could prevent access to the site on an equal footing for people of all faiths and for non-religious persons.
“We are gravely concerned about the rights of everyone to access and enjoy cultural heritage, about inter-faith co-existence and secular spaces, and about the equality and safety of religious minorities, including Christians.” Likewise, the experts hope that opposition to this move elsewhere in the world will reflect universal values and non-discrimination, rather than offering a competing monolithic vision which fosters hatred against Muslims. “It is essential to refrain from instrumentalizing cultural heritage and instead to engage with heritage in its diversity in such a way as to allow cultural rights to flourish for all.”
“We encourage the Turkish Government to engage in dialogue with all stakeholders. This is essential to guarantee that the Hagia Sophia continues to be a space for the enjoyment of cultural rights by all, reflecting its diverse Christian, Muslim and secular heritages, and that it continues to be a symbol which brings all people in Turkey together,” said the two experts.
The experts: Ms. Karima Bennoune was appointed as Special Rapporteur in the field of cultural rights by the United Nations Human Rights Council in October 2015. Ms Bennoune grew up in Algeria and the United States. She is Professor of Law and Martin Luther King, Jr. Hall Research Scholar at the University of California-Davis School of Law where she teaches courses on human rights and international law. Her research and writing, including on cultural rights issues, has been widely published in leading journals and periodicals. Her mandate covers all countries and has most recently been renewed by Human Rights Council resolution 37/12.
Mr. Ahmed Shaheed (Maldives) was appointed as Special Rapporteur on freedom of religion or belief by the UN Human Rights Council in 2016. Mr. Shaheed is a Visiting Professor at Essex University, UK; a former member of the Maldivian presidential Commission Investigating Corruption; and a foreign policy advisor to the President of the Maldives. He was Foreign Minister of the Maldives from 2005 to 2007 and from 2008 to 2010. He led the country’s efforts to sign and ratify all nine international human rights Conventions and to implement them in law and practice.
The Special Rapporteurs are part of what is known as the Special Procedures of the Human Rights Council. Special Procedures, the largest body of independent experts in the UN Human Rights system, is the general name of the Council’s independent fact-finding and monitoring mechanisms that address either specific country situations or thematic issues in all parts of the world. Special Procedures’ experts work on a voluntary basis; they are not UN staff and do not receive a salary for their work. They are independent from any government or organization and serve in their individual capacity.