Pope Francis has said he was hurt by Turkey’s decision to make Istanbul’s Hagia Sophia museum a mosque, but Ankara said the decision will maintain a relationship of equality and mutual respect in the country.
It was the Vatican’s first reaction to Turkey’s decision to transform the Byzantine-era monument back into a mosque, a move that has drawn criticism from around the world.
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“I think of Hagia Sophia and I am very saddened,” Pope Francis said towards the end of his midday sermon in Saint Peter’s Square.
The World Council of Churches has called on Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan to reverse his decision and Patriarch Bartholomew, the Istanbul-based spiritual leader of the world’s Orthodox Christians, called it disappointing.
On Saturday, Erdogan rejected international condemnation over the decision to change the status of Istanbul’s landmark Hagia Sophia from a museum to a mosque.
“Those who do not take a step against Islamophobia in their own countries … attack Turkey’s will to use its sovereign rights,” Erdogan said at a ceremony he attended via video-conference on Saturday.
Hagia Sophia was built 1,500 years ago as an Orthodox Christian cathedral and was converted into a mosque after the Ottomans conquered Constantinople, now Istanbul, in 1453. The secular Turkish government decided in 1934 to make it a museum.
Erdogan on Friday formally converted the building back into a mosque and declared it open for Muslim worship, hours after a high court annulled the 1934 decision.
Bishop Hilarion, who heads the Russian Orthodox Church’s department for external church relations, described it as “a blow to global Christianity”.
The World Council of Churches, which represents 350 Christian churches, said it had written to Erdogan expressing their “grief and dismay”.
The head of the Greek Orthodox Church, Archbishop Ieronymos, on Sunday denounced what he described as the “instrumentalisation of religion to partisan or geopolitical ends”.
“The outrage and the arrogance doesn’t just concern the Orthodox Church and Christianity but all of civilised humanity … independently of religion,” he added.
Erdogan said Hagia Sophia – known as Ayasofya in Turkey – would remain open to Muslims, Christians and foreigners.
“The Hagia Sophia’s doors will remain open to visitors from all around the world,” the president’s press aide Fahrettin Altun said on Saturday. “People of all religious denominations are welcome and encouraged to visit it – just as they have been able to visit other mosques, including the Blue Mosque.”
UNESCO said its World Heritage Committee would review Hagia Sophia‘s status, and Turkey’s decision raised questions about the effect on its universal value as a site of importance transcending borders and generations.