Turkey may bar Greek Orthodox mass at Hagia Sophia

Thu Sep 16, 2010 10:53am EDT
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By Ayla Jean Yackley

ISTANBUL (Reuters) - About 200 Greek Orthodox Christians want to travel to Istanbul to try to hold mass at the former basilica of Hagia Sophia, defying Turkish law that bars religious services in what is now a museum.

A Turkish Foreign Ministry official said Ankara could stop the group from entering Turkey if they pose a security threat.

Prime Minister Tayyip Erdogan's government has lifted curbs on Christian worship at other sites under a EU-inspired drive to improve human rights. It has ruled out services at Hagia Sophia.

Turkish law from the 1930s has prevented both Muslims and Christians from formal worship at the monument, the greatest cathedral in Christendom for a millennium before invading Ottomans converted it into a mosque in the 15th century.

The U.S.-based group behind the attempt said it was on a mission to "re-establish Hagia Sophia as the holy house of prayer for all Christians of the world and the seat of Orthodoxy before the conquest of Constantinople by the Ottoman Turks in 1453."

Istanbul, formerly known as Constantinople, was the seat of the Greek Byzantine Empire until 1453. Hagia Sophia became a museum after the formation of modern secular Turkey in 1923.

Members are due to arrive in Istanbul on Friday.

The Foreign Ministry official said on condition of anonymity: "If an individual is known to pose a security problem, it's not possible for him to enter Turkey."   Continued...

<p>Topkapi Palace, once the home of sultans for 400 years, the sixth-century Hagia Sophia (Ayasofya) and the Ottoman-era Blue Mosque form the skyline of the old city, overlooking Galata bridge on the Golden Horn in Istanbul June 1, 2007. REUTERS/Fatih Saribas</p>