Pope Francis on Sunday joined an international chorus of condemnation of Turkey’s decision to convert Istanbul’s iconic Hagia Sophia landmark back into a mosque.
“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.
Pope condemns Hagia Sophia conversion: a first from the Holy See
It was the Vatican’s first reaction to Turkey’s decision to transform the Byzantine-era monument back into a mosque, a decision that has already drawn criticism from around the world.
"I think of Hagia Sophia, and I am very saddened."
Pope Francis stood in silence for several minutes at his weekly Angelus prayer, after he talked about Turkey's decision to convert the Hagia Sophia back into a mosque. https://t.co/h98Tefm4CX
— CNN International (@cnni) July 13, 2020
The Vatican newspaper Osservatore Romano on Saturday carried reaction from different countries to 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 1,500 years ago as a cathedral in the Christian Byzantine Empire and it was there they crowned their emperors.
It was converted into a mosque after the Ottoman conquest of Constantinople in 1453, then became a museum in 1935.
Turkey’s 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 July 24 at the UNESCO World Heritage site.
Pope condemns Hagia Sophia conversion: echoes others
Several other Christian leaders have already spoken out against Turkey’s 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.
Greek Culture Minister Lina Mendoni took a similar view, calling Turkey’s decision “a provocation to the civilised world”.
Prime Minister Kyriakos Mitsotakis also condemned the move, not just for the damage it would do to relations between Greece and Turkey, but Ankara’s relations with “the European Union, UNESCO and the world community”.
Greek newspapers flay Turkey over conversion
The transformation of the Hagia Sophia dominated the headlines in Greek newspapers this weekend.
The Kathimerini newspaper stressed the political dimension of Turkey’s decision, which it said effectively underlined the secular roots of modern Turkey and demonstrated “Erdogan’s megalomania”.
Erdogan on Saturday dismissed protests from Russia, the United States, France and UNESCO.
“Those who do not take a step against Islamophobia in their own countries … attack Turkey’s will to use its sovereign rights,” he said.
In the past, he had repeatedly called for the stunning building to be turned back into a mosque and in 2018, he recited a verse from the Koran at the 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 then church-turned-mosque as a museum.
What is the furore over Hagia Sophia about?
Istanbul’s iconic Hagia Sophia is to reopen for Muslim worship as a mosque after an almost nine-decade hiatus, in the latest historic tussle with Christianity over religious sites.
The UNESCO World Heritage site was constructed as a cathedral during the Byzantine empire but converted into a mosque after the Ottoman conquest of Constantinople in 1453.
A Turkish court on Friday overturned a 1934 cabinet decision to turn Hagia Sophia into a museum, clearing the way for a July 24 reversion to its status as a mosque.
I really wished his thoughts would also go to those mosques burnt down and destroyed in Spain and other places.
— Shahid Mursaleen (@ShahidMursaleen) July 12, 2020
Meanwhile, the reopening Istanbul’s Hagia Sophia for prayers will not deprive it of its identity, as it will always belong to the world’s historical heritage, Ibrahim Kalin, Turkey’s presidential spokesperson, said.
Opening Hagia Sophia to prayer, as Turkish leaders have expressed interest in doing, will not hinder people visiting it, he said. Turkey will still preserve the Christian icons there, just like our ancestors preserved all Christian values, said Kalin.
Watch Dr. Moeed Pirzada explain how the Hagia Mosque was converted into a museum by Kemal Attaturk from a position of strength and not weakness. Why Western countries took a different stance on Hagia Sophia versus the Babri Mosque in India. What does this mean for current Turkey and Greece relations. Have Muslims won from this move?
AFP with additional input by GVS News Desk