The World Council of Churches has called on Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan to reverse his decision to transform the famous Hagia Sophia museum into a mosque.
In a letter to Erdogan, the council, which has 350 member churches, said the move would sow division.
The UNESCO World Heritage Site in Istanbul has been a museum since 1934.
The president announced his decision on Friday following a court decision that canceled its museum status.
The Hagia Sophia was built 1,500 years ago as an Orthodox Christian cathedral, but was transformed into a mosque after the Ottoman conquest in 1453.
It was converted into a museum by order of Mustafa Kemal Ataturk, the founding father of modern, secular Turkey.
Since then, religious services have been banned from the site, but devout Muslims have long campaigned for worship to be allowed.
What does the letter say?
The Geneva-based World Council of Churches says it represents more than 500 million Christians.
The letter is from Ioan Sauca, Acting Secretary General, who says that the Council is “grieved and dismayed.”
“By deciding to convert Hagia Sophia into a mosque, you reversed this positive sign of the opening of Turkey and changed it into a sign of exclusion and division. “
He writes that the decision “will inevitably create uncertainty, suspicion and mistrust, undermining all of our efforts to bring people of different faiths around the table for dialogue and cooperation.”
“In the interest of promoting mutual understanding, respect, dialogue and cooperation, and by avoiding cultivating old animosities and divisions, we urge you to reconsider and reverse your decision,” the letter continues.
What did President Erdogan say?
The case was decided by the State Council, the highest administrative body in Turkey, following a petition from an NGO, the Association for the Protection of Historic Monuments and the Environment.
He argued that the building was the private property of Ottoman Sultan Mehmed, responsible for the transformation of the church into a mosque.
The question highlighted the conflict between those who want Turkey to remain secular and President Erdogan’s conservative religious base.
He defended his decision Friday by stressing that the country had exercised its sovereign right by converting the building into a mosque. The first Muslim prayers would take place on July 24.
“Like all our mosques, the doors of Hagia Sophia will be wide open to locals and foreigners, Muslims and non-Muslims,” he said.
Today, Turkey had “435 churches and synagogues open to worship”, while “few buildings built by our ancestors in Eastern Europe and the Balkans exist today”.
What other reaction has there been?
Unesco deeply regretted this decision and called on Turkey to open the dialogue “without delay”.
The head of the Eastern Orthodox Church condemned this decision.
Greece, home to millions of Orthodox worshipers, called it “an open provocation to the civilized world”.
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.
And Turkey’s most famous author, Orhan Pamuk, told the BBC: “There are millions of secular Turks like me who cry against this, but their voices are not heard. “
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