The Russian Orthodox Church says converting Istanbul’s Hagia Sophia monument from a museum to a mosque would be “unacceptable” while Turkey has defended the decision, citing its sovereignty over the matter.
Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan has proposed restoring the mosque status of the UNSECO-recognised World Heritage Site. The sixth-century building was at the heart of both the Christian Byzantine and Muslim Ottoman empires and now one of Turkey’s most visited monuments.
“We can’t go back to the Middle Ages now,” Metropolitan Hilarion, chairman of the Moscow Patriarchate’s department for external church relations, said on state television on Saturday.
“We live in a multipolar world, we live in a multi-confessional world, and we need to respect the feelings of believers.”
He said the Russian Orthodox Church did not understand the motive for Hagia Sophia’s conversion and that it believed domestic politics was behind the move.
“We believe that in the current conditions this act is an unacceptable violation of religious freedom,” Hilarion was quoted as saying.
The proposal has also been criticised by other religious and political leaders.
Ecumenical Patriarch Bartholomew, based in Istanbul and the spiritual leader of some 300 million Orthodox Christians worldwide, said converting Hagia Sophia into a mosque would disappoint Christians and would “fracture” East and West.
US Secretary of State Mike Pompeo and the Greek government have also urged Turkey to keep the building as a museum.
But Erdogan has described foreign criticism over the proposal as an attack on Turkey’s sovereignty.
Speaking at the groundbreaking ceremony of a mosque in Istanbul, Erdogan said Turkey will always protect the rights of Muslims and the minorities living in the country.
The Turkish president said there are 435 churches and synagogues in Turkey where Christian and Jews can pray.
The Hagia Sophia was used as a church for 916 years. In 1453, it was converted into a mosque by Ottoman Sultan Mehmet II when the empire conquered Istanbul.
Following the restoration work during the Ottoman era and the adding of minarets by architect Mimar Sinan, the Hagia Sophia became one of the most important works of world architecture.
Under the Turkish rule, it became a museum.
A Turkish court earlier this week heard a case aimed at converting the building back into a mosque and will announce its verdict later this month.
The court case, brought by an NGO for preserving historic monuments, disputes the legality of a decision in 1934, in the early days of the modern secular Turkish state under Mustafa Kemal Ataturk, to convert Hagia Sophia – known in Turkish as Ayasofya – from a mosque into a museum.