Pope ‘very pained’ by decision to turn Hagia Sophia museum into mosque

Updated 13 Jul 2020

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“My thoughts go to Istanbul. I think of Santa Sophia and I am very pained,” he said during his weekly blessing in St.  Peter’s Square. — Reuters/File
“My thoughts go to Istanbul. I think of Santa Sophia and I am very pained,” he said during his weekly blessing in St. Peter’s Square. — Reuters/File

VATICAN CITY: Pope Francis said on Sunday he was hurt by Turkey’s decision to make Istanbul’s Hagia Sophia museum a mosque, the latest religious leader to condemn the move.

“My thoughts go to Istanbul. I think of Santa Sophia and I am very pained,” he said during his weekly blessing in St. Peter’s Square.

Turkish President Tayyip Erdogan has said the first prayers would be held in Hagia Sophia on July 24, after declaring the ancient monument was once again a mosque following a court ruling revoking its status 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.

Turkey says it has exercised its sovereign right by making the decision

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.

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.

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.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”.

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. 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.

Published in Dawn, July 13th, 2020