UNESCO and Hagia Sophia

By , March 5, 2014 6:05 PM


Dear Ms. Janssen,

My name is Theodore G. Karakostas and I have been writing to the New York Office of UNESCO for some time, with regard to the issue of the Turkish Government’s announced plans to convert the Greek Orthodox CATHEDRAL into a Mosque. This announcement followed on the heels of the actual conversion of Greek Orthodox/Byzantine Churches in Nicea (Iznik) and Trebizond into Mosques. I am aware that the Great Church (as we Greeks call it) is on UNESCO’s World Heritage List.

I have been writing and calling in order to obtain information as to what UNESCO plans to do about this outrage, and have been told that this is not the task of the NY office of UNESCO. Fair enough, but while being told this I was also assured that someone would contact me, and to date no one has. As such, I respectfully request contact information as to who I can correspond with in order to initiate a dialogue on this matter. I am asking for nothing that is unreasonable, and my request is based strictly on democratic principles of openness and accountability.

My last exchange with the NY office of UNESCO was profoundly unpleasant and it appears to me the individual with whom I spoke seemed to be entirely unfamiliar with the significance of the Hagia Sophia Cathedral. As I pointed out the theological and religious significance of the site, the person with whom I spoke seemed to disparage the Christian aspect of Hagia Sophia by minimizing UNESCO’s interests in Hagia Sophia as a Church, and placing greater emphasis on the Great Church as a treasure for humanity.

These assertions I found to be profoundly offensive and insulting. Certainly, as a Greek Orthodox believer and theological student I am pleased that people throughout the world have been exposed to the beauty and wonder of Hagia Sophia. Indeed, there is something quite positive in people from all nations witnessing the miracle of Saint Justinian (who was a Greek Orthodox theologian as well as an Emperor) and his beautiful vision in establishing a Cathedral that was in fact named for Jesus Christ himself.

However, Hagia Sophia was not meant to be a tourist attraction, nor was it intended to serve as an art gallery. The beautiful mosaics and Iconography that adorn the Great Church are intended to convey the miracle of the Incarnation in which God became Man. Hagia Sophia can never be identified with anything except Greek Orthodox theology and worship. As such, Orthodox Christians throughout the world are within their rights to demand that Turkey be pressured to cease and desist from interfering with the Great Church.

UNESCO has a great deal of responsibility to publicly condemn the Turkish government’s announced plans. I was told over the phone that UNESCO sent the Turkish authorities a letter. Has such a letter been made public? In addition to asking that the Christian origins of Hagia Sophia be fully respected and acknowledged now and in the future, I respectfully ask that UNESCO respect Hagia Sophia as place of martyrdom where Greek Orthodox faithful were either murdered in cold blood, or taken away as slaves during the Fall of Constantinople in 1453. This is a national shrine for Greeks, and the fact that there is no memorial for the Christians that died during the Fall of the City is an outrage, and a distortion of history at the service of Turkey’s authoritarian and bloody governments.

During the twentieth century, Turkish governments pursued a policy of racial and religious extermination (i.e Genocide) toward the Armenian, Assyrian, and Greek Christian populations. Turkey’s racist polices have never ceased and this can be seen by the current mistreatment and oppression of Christians within Turkey, as well as in Turkish occupied Cyprus where Turkish forces ethnically cleansed over 200,000 Greek Cypriots and have destroyed over five hundred Greek and Armenian Churches. I might like to ask in addition what has UNESCO done to condemn Turkey’s treatment of Churches and Hellenic Monuments in occupied Cyprus?

The person I spoke to on the phone said something to the effect that UNESCO preserves sites that are for humanity.

Enabling the Turkish regime does a disservice to humanity and permitting the Turks to take Churches and Shrines built and once used by populations who were exterminated is an insult to humanity. The fact that there are no monuments for the Armenian, Assyrian, and Greek victims of Turkish Genocide is an affront to humanity.

I respectfully ask that UNESCO in the name of ethics and in the name of respect for the religious and cultural rights of Christian populations in Turkey actively oppose the Turkish Government’s plans to convert Hagia Sophia, and that UNESCO more carefully respect the memory of Christians who lived under Turkish rule and who can no longer speak for themselves.

Most Respectfully,
Theodore G. Karakostas

One Response to “UNESCO and Hagia Sophia”

  1. Hagia Sophia campaign restarts
    (Posted by Admin, written by Ted Karakostas)
    There are others who have been very active on the Hagia Sophia issue. The Hellenic American Leadership Conference has been doing great work in putting pressure on UNESCO.

    See here:
    Stand up for Hagia Sophia – Hellenic American Leadership Council
    Say NO to converting Hagia Sophia into a mosque
    It is time for as many parties as possible to get active and good timing just three weeks before we celebrate March 25.
    UNESCO NY email address newyork@unesco.org,

    UNESCO NY Phone Number (212) 963-5995

    The person to address is

    The more emails and phone calls they get, the better.

    We can not permit our history and faith to be defiled by the Turks, and to permit UNESCO to stand aside doing nothing.

    As with 1922, 1955, and 1974, there is no one who is willing to oppose the Turks and to condemn them.

    Ted Karakostas

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