Russian officials and the Orthodox church on Monday urged caution over calls in Turkey to alter the status of the Hagia Sophia, the historic former cathedral in Istanbul. Russia has aired its views on the matter as it warns Turkey against plans to convert the Hagia Sophia into a mosque.
Turkey’s top court is debating whether one of the architectural wonders of the world can be redesignated as a mosque, a move that could inflame tensions with the West and the Christian community.
A ruling expected in the coming days on the site, which is currently a museum.
Russia warns Turkey: Hagia Sophia a ‘great Christian shrine’
The head of Russia’s Orthodox Church Patriarch Kirill said he was “deeply concerned” by the moves, describing Hagia Sophia as “one of the greatest monuments of Christian culture”.
“A threat to Hagia Sophia is a threat to the whole of Christian civilisation, and therefore to our spirituality and history,” the Orthodox church leader said in a statement.
“To this day, for every Russian Orthodox person, Hagia Sophia is a great Christian shrine,” he said, urging the Turkish government to be cautious.
He said that altering the current neutral status of the historic building would cause “deep pain” among the Russian people.
Russia warns Turkey: hopes status as Heritage Site is taken into account
Kremlin spokesman Dmitry Peskov said the future of the historic site was a domestic Turkish issue, but added that he hoped Hagia Sophia’s status as a World Heritage Site would be “taken into account”.
He said the former cathedral was a “world masterpiece” that has “sacred value” for Russians.
Deputy Foreign Minister Sergei Vershinin told reporters Russia hopes “the global significance of the object will be taken into account”.
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Hagia Sophia was first constructed as a cathedral in the Christian Byzantine Empire in the sixth century but was converted into a mosque after the Ottoman conquest of Constantinople in 1453.
Transforming it into a museum was a key reform of the post-Ottoman authorities under the modern republic’s founder Mustafa Kemal Ataturk.
But calls for it to serve again as a mosque have sparked anger among Christians and tensions between historic foes and uneasy NATO allies Turkey and Greece.
Russian warning echoes US plea
Earlier, US Secretary of State Mike Pompeo weighed in on a controversial debate in Turkey over the future of Istanbul’s ancient Hagia Sophia landmark, before a court ruling that may pave the way for requests to turn the site back into a mosque.
US Secretary of State Mike Pompeo urged Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan not to convert the Hagia Sophia into a mosque and said Istanbul’s celebrated former cathedral should remain open to all.
Hagia Sophia Mosque since 1453 Hahahahah 😉 pic.twitter.com/t4Q5nllhUl
— Mücahit 🐺 (@insunigillerden) July 6, 2020
“We urge the government of Turkey to continue to maintain the Hagia Sophia as a museum, as an exemplar of its commitment to respect the faith traditions and diverse history that contributed to the Republic of Turkey, and to ensure it remains accessible to all,” Pompeo said.
“The United States views a change in the status of the Hagia Sophia as diminishing the legacy of this remarkable building and its unsurpassed ability — so rare in the modern world — to serve humanity as a much-needed bridge between those of differing faith traditions and cultures,” he said in a statement.
Pompeo stated that Hagia Sophia has been recognized by UNESCO as a World Heritage site for nearly a century, and should be maintained as such by Turkey to show respect to history.
Pompeo — an evangelical Protestant who often speaks about the rights of religious minorities — said that the United States hoped to maintain dialogue with Turkey over the preservation of religious and cultural sites.
Turkey’s plans for converting Hagia Sophia into a Mosque
In 2016, the government allowed the recitation of the Islamic call for prayer inside the building and later assigned an imam to a small chamber where people have been allowed to pray since 1991.
Y’all are delusional if you still think that hagiasophia is a church
— Mehmet Efe Cevik (@MehmetEfeCevik2) July 6, 2020
Originally built as a Greek Orthodox church using futuristic techniques in what was then Constantinople, it was the main cathedral in Christendom – and the world’s largest – for 900 years before being converted into an Ottoman mosque in 1453.
After the Ottoman conquest, it was converted into a mosque before being turned into a museum during the rule of Mustafa Kemal Ataturk, the secularizing founder of modern Turkey, in the 1930s.
Erdogan mused last year about turning the museum into a mosque.
GVS News Desk with additional input by AFP and other sources
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