VATICAN CITY: Pope Francis said Sunday (Jul 12) he was “very distressed” over Turkey’s decision to convert the Byzantine-era monument Hagia Sophia back into a mosque.
“My thoughts go to Istanbul. I’m thinking about Hagia Sophia. I am very distressed,” the pope said in the Vatican’s first reaction to a decision that has drawn international criticism.
The Vatican newspaper Osservatore Romano had on Saturday carried reaction from different countries about Friday’s decision to turn the monument from a museum back into a mosque but without any comment.
A magnet for tourists worldwide, the Hagia Sophia was first constructed as a cathedral in the Christian Byzantine Empire but was converted into a mosque after the Ottoman conquest of Constantinople in 1453.
President Recep Tayyip Erdogan, who critics say is chipping away at the Muslim-majority country’s secular pillars, announced Friday that Muslim prayers would begin on Jul 24 at the UNESCO World Heritage site.
In the past, he has repeatedly called for the stunning building to be renamed as a mosque and in 2018, he recited a verse from the Koran at Hagia Sophia.
Erdogan’s announcement came after a top court cancelled a 1934 cabinet decision under modern Turkey’s secularising founder Mustafa Kemal Ataturk to preserve the church-turned-mosque as a museum.
The World Council of Churches has called on Erdogan to reverse his decision and Patriarch Bartholomew, the Istanbul-based spiritual leader of the world’s Orthodox Christians, called it disappointing.
Erdogan said the nearly 1,500-year-old Hagia Sophia, which was once a Christian cathedral, would remain open to Muslims, Christians and foreigners.
He added that Turkey had exercised its sovereign right in converting it to a mosque and would interpret criticism of the move as an attack on its independence.
Greece has condemned the move and UNESCO said its World Heritage Committee would review Hagia Sophia’s status and that Turkey’s decision raised questions about the impact on its universal value as a site of importance transcending borders and generations.