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Syria to build new Hagia Sophia with help from Russia

Syrian President Bashar Al-Assad attends the Arab Summit, 28 March 2007 in Riyadh. Arab leaders kicked off a two-day summit in Saudi Arabia today aiming to revive a dormant plan for peace with Israel and launch a diplomatic offensive to resolve the Middle East conflict [HASSAN AMMAR/AFP via Getty Images]
Syrian President Bashar Al-Assad attends the Arab Summit, 28 March 2007 in Riyadh [HASSAN AMMAR/AFP via Getty Images]

The Syrian regime under President Bashar Al-Assad has announced that it will build a miniature replica of the Hagia Sophia, in opposition to the Turkish government's reversion of the building from a museum into a mosque.

The construction of this mini Hagia Sophia, taking place in the central province of Hama, will be assisted by Syria's prominent ally Russia and will reportedly show the importance of "peaceful dialogue" between the major faiths.

According to the Lebanon-based news outlet Al-Modon, the idea for the building was initiated by a man named Nabeul Al-Abdullah, the head of a pro-regime loyalist militia within the province. After gaining the approval of the metropolitan bishop of the Greek Orthodox church in Hama, Nicolos Baalbaki, the plans were then presented to the Russian military within Syria.

The replica is to be built specifically in the Greek Orthodox-majority city of Al-Suqaylabiyah, on a piece of land donated by the militia leader Al-Abdullah; a Russian team within Latakia's Hmeimim military base is reportedly already working on plans for the construction.

According to the Arabic-language newspaper Rai Al-Youm, Russian lawmaker Vitaly Milonov stated that Syria is the ideal location for the mini Hagia Sophia replica because "unlike Turkey, it is a country that clearly shows the possibility of peaceful and positive interfaith dialogue."

Hagia Sophia: Religious and political leaders are missing their own chances to right historical wrongs

The original Hagia Sophia, based in the city of Istanbul, was reverted back into the status of a mosque after the Turkish government overturned a 1934 ruling which made it into a museum. The historic building, which was initially built as a cathedral by the Byzantine Empire before being made into a mosque following the Ottoman conquest, has long been disputed over and many of those opposed to Turkey's decision argue that it should have been kept as a museum or turned back into a church.

Following the first Friday prayers held in the building after 86 years last week, countries such as Greece condemned the move and religious figures in Russia and the Catholic Pope in Rome expressed their disappointment.

Syria's aim to build a replica of the historic building is seen to serve as a gesture of revenge against Turkey, against whom it is fighting in the ongoing Syrian civil war. It is also a symbolic gesture by the Assad regime towards the Syrian Christian community, which it has posed as being a protector of, despite having targeted churches and persecuting Syrian Christians during the civil war.

Moscow's support and assistance towards the project, according to opposition activists who spoke to Al-Modon, is a method of justifying its military presence within Syria and its backing of Al-Assad based on Russian ties to the Syrian Christian community. The activists also said that the militia leader Al-Abdullah, who donated the land for the construction, aims to strengthen his ties with Russia in case the Assad regime were to fall.

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