Pope Francis said he was “saddened” by Turkey’s decision to convert Hagia Sophia from Istanbul to a mosque.
Speaking at a ceremony in the Vatican, the Catholic leader added that “his thoughts are with Istanbul”.
Hagia Sophia was built as a Christian cathedral almost 1,500 years ago and turned into a mosque after the Ottoman conquest of 1453.
The UNESCO World Heritage Site became a museum in 1934 under the founding father of the Turkish Republic, Atatürk.
But earlier this week, a Turkish court canceled the museum’s status as a site, saying that its use as anything other than a mosque was “not legally possible”.
Pope Francis limited himself to a few words on the question: “My thoughts are with Istanbul. I think of Santa Sophia and I am very sad. ”
President Recep Tayyip Erdogan said that the first Muslim prayers would be held in Hagia Sophia on July 24.
Shortly after the announcement, the first call to prayer was recited on the site and broadcast on all major Turkish news channels. The social networks of Sainte-Sophie have also been deleted.
Islamists in Turkey have long called for it to become a mosque again, but members of the secular opposition opposed the decision.
Defending the decision, President Erdogan stressed that the country had exercised its sovereign right and added that the building would remain open to all Muslims, non-Muslims and foreign visitors.
“Voices not heard”
The Pope is one of the many religious and political leaders around the world who have criticized this decision.
The World Council of Churches has called on President Erdogan to reverse his decision. The Church in Russia, which is home to the largest Orthodox Christian community in the world, immediately regretted that the Turkish court did not take her concerns into account when deciding on Hagia Sophia.
It also drew condemnation from Greece, and Unesco said its World Heritage Committee would now review the status of the monument.
One of Turkey’s most famous writers, Orhan Pamuk, told the BBC that this decision would take away the “pride” that some Turks had in having a secular Muslim nation.
“There are millions of secular Turks like me who cry against this, but their voices are not heard,” said Pamuk.
History of a global icon
- The complex history of Hagia Sophia began in 537, when the Byzantine emperor Justinian built the huge church overlooking the port of the Golden Horn
- With its huge dome, it was considered the largest church and building in the world
- It remained in the hands of the Byzantines for centuries, with the exception of a brief moment in 1204 when the crusaders attacked the city.
- In 1453, in a devastating blow to the Byzantines, the Ottoman sultan Mehmed II captured Istanbul (formerly Constantinople) and the victorious winner made his Friday prayers in Hagia Sophia
- The Ottomans quickly converted the building into a mosque, adding four minarets outside and covering ornate Christian icons and gold mosaics with panels of Arabic religious calligraphy.
- After centuries in the heart of the Ottoman Muslim Empire, it was turned into a museum in 1934 with the aim of making Turkey more secular
- Today, Hagia Sophia is the most popular tourist site in Turkey, attracting more than 3.7 million visitors per year