Hagia Sophia Mosque from the
Perspective of International Law
All considerations relating to the legal status and usage of Hagia Sophia have been Turkey's domestic issue since 1453. Every attempt of any kind of intervention against Hagia Sophia by foreign states does mean nothing else than disrespect to Turkey's sovereign rights. Hagia Sophia Mosque is a matter of international concern in the context of treaties to which Turkey is also a party only as regards the protection of its cultural and natural heritage nature.
In this regard, "the Convention concerning the Protection of World Cultural and Natural Heritage" comes to the forefront in terms of international law. The Convention was agreed upon on November 16, 1972, to present to the world the cultural and natural properties of universal value accepted as the heritage of all the nations of the world, to raise awareness in nations to preserve the world heritage, and to ensure necessary cooperation so as to maintain cultural and natural features that have for various reasons deteriorated or disappeared. Turkey became a party to the UNESCO Convention concerning the Protection of World Cultural and Natural Heritage in 1983.
Natural features, monuments, and sites of international significance that need to be preserved are recognized as World Heritage and inscribed on the World Heritage List within the framework of the Convention. The World Heritage List features 1,121 sites in total around the world, including 18 sites in Turkey.
Hagia Sophia, situated in the historical peninsula along with Topkapı Palace, Süleymaniye Mosque, Sultan Ahmet Mosque, Şehzade Mehmet Mosque, Zeyrek Mosque, and Historical Walls, was inscribed on the World Heritage List in 1985 under the title "Historic Areas of Istanbul" without any qualification concerning its mode of usage.
Article 6 of the Convention concerning the Protection of World Cultural and Natural Heritage reads: "Whilst fully respecting the sovereignty of the States on whose territory the cultural and natural heritage mentioned in Articles 1 and 2 is situated, and without prejudice to property right provided by national legislation, the States Parties to this Convention recognize that such heritage constitutes a world heritage for whose protection it is the duty of the international community as a whole to co-operate.” The Convention does not restrict a State, on whose territory the cultural heritage is situated, to exercise its powers of sovereignty over such heritage.
Therefore, the States Parties to the Convention expressly agree that Hagia Sophia, as a cultural and natural heritage situated in Turkish territory, is a world heritage that needs to be protected in cooperation with the international community by fully respecting the sovereignty of the State of the Republic of Turkey and without prejudice to property rights provided by national legislation. The Convention does not contain any clause of restriction relating to the mode of usage or identity of a cultural heritage recognized as a world heritage. On the contrary, the fact that the usage of Hagia Sophia has to be identified within the framework of "the law on ownership of foundations" as part of the national legislation is an obligation arising out of the principles, set out in Article 6 of the Convention, of "fully respecting the sovereignty of the States" and "without prejudice to the property right provided by national legislation". In brief, the usage of such property as a museum, place of worship, public premises, or any other manner falls outside the scope of the Convention.
From the perspective of international law, the reconversion of Hagia Sophia into a mosque is likely to be interpreted in the context of the European Convention on Human Rights. Although the European Convention on Human Rights does not expressly contain a clause on "right to establish a foundation" among the rights guaranteed, the European Court of Human Rights interprets "freedom of association" under Article 11 broadly as to include "right to establish a foundation" and closely relates it to the freedom of thought, conscience, and religion under Article 9 and the freedom of expression under Article 10.
The European Court of Human Rights also guarantees the protection of the immovable properties and the rights of the foundations within the scope of protection of property, as a result of the status of foundations as protected properties, including also those established during the times of the Ottoman State. As the right to property covers the right to use, manage as desired, and benefit from the property owned, the right of the endower over the property and rights that he or she endows them has to be protected. Therefore, it contradicts the case-law of the European Court of Human Rights to make a change in the characteristics of an immovable property endowed, disrespecting the rights and will of the endower, or to render such property useful to serve other purposes.
The international agreements, treaties, and conventions to which Turkey is a party do not contain any provisions or conditions that pose any obstacles to the reconversion of Hagia Sophia into a mosque. Turkey, as in the past and also in the future, will continue to sensitively preserve and protect cultural and natural heritage within its territory. Turkey is one of the countries with the cleanest history in this regard. Turkey will continue to protect the authenticity, integrity, and high universal value of Hagia Sophia, pursuant to the provisions of the UNESCO Convention concerning the Protection of World Cultural and Natural Heritage, the Law No. 2863 on the Protection of Cultural and Natural Properties, and the Istanbul Historical Peninsula Site Management Plan of 2011.