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Turkey Twists Knife, Turns Another Ancient Church Into Mosque

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The Turkish government formally converted a former Byzantine church into a mosque on Friday, a move that came a month after it similarly turned Istanbul’s landmark Hagia Sophia into a Muslim house of prayer.

Istanbul’s Church of St. Saviour in Chora, known as Kariye in Turkish, was handed to Turkey’s religious authority by President Recep Tayyip Erdogan.

Like the Hagia Sophia, which was a church for centuries and then a mosque, St. Saviour had operated as a museum for decades before Erdogan ordered it reverted to a mosque.

It was not immediately known when the first Muslim prayers would be held there.

The church, situated near the ancient city walls, is famed for its elaborate mosaics and frescoes. It dates to the 4th century, although the edifice took on its current form in the 11th-12th centuries.

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The structure served as a mosque during the Ottoman rule before being transformed into a museum in 1945. A court decision last year canceled the building’s status as a museum, paving the way for Friday’s decision.

And as with the Hagia Sophia, the decision to transform St. Saviour into a mosque is seen as a political move, geared to consolidate the conservative and religious support base of Erdogan’s ruling party at a time when his popularity is sagging amid an economic downturn.

Greece’s Foreign Ministry strongly condemned the move, saying that Turkish authorities “are once again brutally insulting the character” of another U.N.-listed world heritage site.

“This is a provocation against all believers,” the Greek ministry said in a statement.

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“We urge Turkey to return to the 21st century, and the mutual respect, dialogue and understanding between civilizations.”

Elpidophoros, the Greek Orthodox archbishop of America, wrote on Twitter: “After the tragic transgression with Hagia Sophia, now the Monastery of Chora, this exquisite offering of Byzantine culture to the world!”

“The pleas and exhortations of the international community are ignored,” he wrote.

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“Like the Hagia Sophia, this is an important mosque for Muslims,” Turkey’s state-run news agency quoted Istanbul resident Cuma Er as saying.

“We came here to pray after we learned about the decision. But we have been told that it has not yet been opened for prayers. We are waiting for the opening.”

Last month, Erdogan joined hundreds of worshipers for the first Muslim prayers in the Hagia Sophia in 86 years.

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