ATHENS, July 24 – Church bells across Greece tolled in mourning on Friday as the first Islamic prayers in nine decades were held at Hagia Sophia in Turkey, marking the monument’s conversion into a mosque.
Turkey’s President Tayyip Erdogan joined huge crowds in Istanbul for prayers at Hagia Sophia, sealing his ambition to restore Muslim worship at the ancient site which most Greeks consider as central to their Orthodox Christian religion.
Greek criticism of the conversion has been scathing, underscoring often tense relations between Greece and Turkey.
In a message marking Greece’s 46th anniversary of the restoration of democracy on Friday, Greek Prime Minister Kyriakos Mitsotakis called Turkey a ‘troublemaker’, and the Hagia Sophia conversion an ‘affront to civilisation of the 21st century’.
“What is unfolding in Constantinople today is not a demonstration of strength, but proof of weakness,” Mitsotakis said, referring to Istanbul by the old name of the city used by Greeks.
Greece and Turkey disagree on a range of issues from airspace to maritime zones and ethnically split Cyprus. Tensions upped a notch this week with verbal jousting over the delimitation of their continental shelves in the eastern Mediterranean, an area thought to be rich in natural resources.
From Crete to small Greek islands lying just off the Turkish coast, church bells tolled and in some areas flags flew at half mast.
“We thought someone had died but we were told it was for Hagia Sophia. It´s very sad, very sad,” said Katerina, 40, a shop owner on the island of Astypalea. (Reporting By Renee Maltezou, Angeliki Koutantou, Lefteris Papadimas Writing by Michele Kambas Editing by Raissa Kasolowsky)