Russia has agreed to help the Syrian government build a replica of Istanbul’s Hagia Sophia and use it as an Orthodox cathedral.
The move comes after Recep Erdogan’s controversial decision to turn the Emperor Justinian’s Byzantine wonder into a mosque.
It was built in 537 as a Christian church, but Ottomans converted it into a mosque after their conquest of Constantinople in 1453. The secular republic of Kamal AtatÃ¼rk turned it into a museum in 1935.
Russia will help to fund a scaled down version in the western Syrian province of Hama, with site preparation work to begin in August.
The decision is being interpreted as a Russian rebuke to Erdogan. Vitaly Milonov, a Russian legislator, told RIA Novosti news agency: "Syria, unlike Turkey, is a country that clearly shows the possibility of peaceful and positive interfaith dialogue. President Bashar al-Assad would never transfer a cathedral from one denomination to another."
The site of the cathedral is a few kilometres south of a Turkish military base.
According to Lebanese newspaper Al-Modon, the project was the idea of Nabeul Al-Abdullah, the leader of a pro-regime militia, who donated the land for the project.
His idea was supported by Nicola Baalbaki, who is bishop of the Greek Orthodox Metropolitan of Hama.
The proposal was then approved by the Duma, Russia’s legislature.
The move is also intended to increase Russian support for Abdullah’s National Defence militia, which is Greek Orthodox in religious orientation.
Mohamed Rashid, a media commentator, told Al-Modon: "The initiative [is intended to] show loyalty to Russia, a policy pursued by the Orthodox Christian militias of the national defence in the region since 2015."
Yahya Nana’a, the former head of the Aleppo Provincial Council, told Al-Modon: "Building a church named after the Hagia Sophia is a clever tactic from the militia. It creates a symbolic link with the Russian occupation that obliges it to protect the region in case of regime collapse, or if the opposition makes some military move against it."
No information has been given as to the size of the project.
Image: The Hagia Sophia (Arild VÃ¥gen/CC BY-SA 3.0)