Luxembourg's Foreign Minister Jean Asselborn makes a statement to the media as he arrives for a meeting of EU foreign ministers at the European Council building in Brussels, Monday, July 13, 2020. European Union foreign ministers meet for the first time face-to-face since the pandemic lockdown and will assess their fraught relations with China and discuss the troubled relation with Turkey. (AP Photo/Virginia Mayo, Pool)

EU, Turkey clash over Hagia Sophia, Mediterranean drilling

July 13, 2020 - 7:37 am

BRUSSELS (AP) — Turkey and the European Union clashed on Monday over Ankara's energy exploration in disputed Mediterranean waters and changing the status of Hagia Sophia from a museum to a mosque.

For their first face-to-face meeting in months, EU foreign ministers discussed taking a tougher stand on Ankara though no immediate measures were expected.

“When I see now what is happening with Hagia Sophia, that is a blow," Luxembourg Foreign Minister Jean Asselborn said, and was joined by several others in his criticism. Hagia Sophia was originally built in Istanbul as a Christian cathedral, and the pope and others have expressed their sadness and criticism of the move by President Recep Tayyip Erdogan.

Greek government spokesman Stelios Petsas said Monday that the EU was “faced with a challenge and insult" meted out by Erdogan.

Turkish Foreign Minister Mevlut Cavusoglu hit back and rejected international intervention concerning its decision to convert Hagia Sophia back into a mosque.

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

EU foreign affairs chief Josep Borrell was in Turkey last week where he also discussed Ankara’s disputes with Greece and Cyprus over energy exploration in the eastern Mediterranean region. Turkey has dispatched warship-escorted vessels to drill for gas in an area where Cyprus insists it has exclusive rights. The Turkish government has said it’s acting to protect its interests in the area’s natural resources and those of Turkish Cypriots.

Petsas said that Turkish drilling was blatantly contrary to international obligations and international law" and said that Greece would be looking to prepare a list for possible “political, diplomatic and financial" sanctions.

Again, Cavusoglu stood firm.

“If Greece were to turn away from its maximalist ways and agree to a fair sharing (of rights), and if it were to convince Cyprus to a fair sharing of revenues (from the exploration of natural resources), then 80% of our problems would solved,” Cavusoglu said.

Even as the rift between both sides was deepening, the 27 EU ministers couldn't get that close among themselves either. It was their first in-person meeting since the coronavirus lockdown set in, but because of social distancing rules, there was only room for lots of elbow bumping for a greeting and little reading of lips, since ministers were wearing masks around the meeting table.


Suzan Fraser in Ankara, Turkey, and Derek Gatopoulos in Athens, Greece, contributed to this report.

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