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EU chides Turkey over Hagia Sophia

July 13, 2020

Ankara's decision to convert Hagia Sophia into a mosque has been met with disapproval across the bloc. EU chiefs have also been discussing China and Hong Kong during their first face-to-face talks in several months.

Josep Borrell speaks to press
Image: picture-alliance/AP Photo/V. Mayo

The European Union and Turkey were on a collision course over Ankara's decision to alter the status of Hagia Sophia, from a museum to a mosque, the EU's foreign affairs chief Josep Borrell said on Monday.

The 27 EU foreign ministers said that they "condemned the decision to convert such an emblematic monument as the Hagia Sophia," Borrell said.

"This decision will inevitably fuel the mistrust, promote renewed division between religious communities and undermine our efforts at dialogue and cooperation," he said after the first face-to-face meeting of EU foreign ministers in several months following the coronavirus pandemic.

Borrell added there was "broad support to call on the Turkish authorities to urgently consider and reverse this decision."

Hagia Sophia was originally built as a Christian cathedral in Istanbul, and the pope and others have expressed their disappointment over the move by Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan.

Turkey defends 'sovereign rights'

However, Turkish Foreign Minister Mevlut Cavusoglu rejected the condemnation of its decision to convert Hagia Sophia.

"Hagia Sophia was left as a legacy as a mosque and must be used as a mosque," Cavusoglu told Turkish state broadcaster TRT. "We strongly reject comments that amount to an intervention in Turkey's sovereign rights."

China crisis

Meanwhile, the EU is preparing a measured response to China's new security law on Hong Kong, foreign policy chief Borrell confirmed.

Diplomats said there was a consensus among member states for action but a tough response was not being considered because of resistance from China's closest trade partners in Europe, such as Hungary and Greece.

While European Commission President Ursula von der Leyen last month warned of "very negative consequences" for China, the commission's foreign affairs chief suggested a more measured response.

Read more: Taiwan accuses Germany of discrimination after flag removal

"We have agreed today to develop a coordinated European Union response to show support for Hong Kong's autonomy and civil society," Borrell said.

"This will comprise measures both at the European Union level and also measures falling on the member states' national competencies in a coordinated approach," Borrell said.

Merkel calls for collective response

German Chancellor Angela Merkel supported a cohesive EU response but warned against cutting off talks with Beijing. "It is important that EU member states are trying to find a common policy toward China and a common answer," she said during a press conference with Italian Prime Minister Giuseppe Conte. "[But] this is no reason not to remain in dialogue with China."

Borrell said EU countries could also review their extradition agreements with Hong Kong authorities, review travel advice, increase scholarships for Hong Kong students and offer more visas.

jsi/dr (AP, AFP, dpa, Reuters)