Now that Turkey has turned Hagia Sophia in Istanbul back into a mosque, concern is rising that the same fate awaits another Orthodox church there with some of the most beautiful mosaics and frescos in the Christian world.
The interior of Holy Saviour in Chora, a medieval Byzantine church in western Istanbul that is now a museum, is covered with Bible scenes and portraits of Jesus and the saints dating back to the fourteenth century.
The Ottoman Turks turned Chora into a mosque half a century after their conquest of Constantinople in 1453, hiding its rich artwork under a layer of plaster because Islam bans iconic images.
After the Second World War, then-secular Turkey changed it into the Kariye Museum and allowed American experts to restore it to its old glory. The unique mosaics and frescos have been on display since 1958.
The State Council of Turkey, where President Recep Tayyip Erdogan now promotes an Islamic revival, decided last November that it should be turned back into a mosque, but the decision has not yet been implemented.
“The Turks seem to be supporting the transformation of another Byzantine church of Constantinople into a mosque,” wrote Fr Jivko Panev, a church historian at Saint Sergius Institute of Orthodox Theology in Paris, where Holy Saviour in Chora is registered as a Unesco heritage site.
Giannis Theocharis of the Greek Archeologists’ Association said: “it is quite probable that the monument will be switched from the archaeological service to the general directorate of religious establishments.” It would then be changed into a mosque.
Before converting Istanbul’s Hagia Sophia, French historian Fabrice Monnier noted, Turkey had already turned two church-museums back into mosques in recent years, the artistically less notable Hagia Sophia buildings in Iznik, formerly Nicaea, and Trabzon.
Holy Saviour in Chora is different, he told Le Figaro. "Its beautiful mosaics and frescos cover almost all the church's walls and domes," he said. "It would be hard to imagine it being returned into a mosque without totally covering them over."
Hagia Sophia, which was the cathedral of Constantinople before being converted into a mosque by the Ottomans, was declared a museum in 1935 and then turned back into a mosque last month.
Erdogan’s AK party lost the Istanbul mayoral election to a secularist politician last year, a defeat analysts say prompted the Turkish leader to appeal to pious Muslim voters by reconverting church-museums into mosques.