Pope joins criticism of Turkey transforming Hagia Sophia into mosque

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Vatican City (AFP)

On Sunday, Pope Francis joined an international choir condemning Turkey’s decision to convert the iconic Hagia Sophia in Istanbul into a mosque.

“I am thinking of Hagia Sophia and I am very saddened,” said Pope Francis towards the end of his midday sermon in St. Peter’s Square.

It was the Vatican’s first reaction to Turkey’s decision to turn the Byzantine era monument into a mosque, a move that has already drawn criticism from around the world.

Saturday, the Vatican newspaper Osservatore Romano reacted from different countries to Friday’s decision to transform the monument of a museum into a mosque, but without any comments.

A magnet for tourists from around the world, Hagia Sophia was first built 1,500 years ago as a cathedral in the Christian Byzantine Empire and it was there that they crowned their emperors.

It was transformed into a mosque after the Ottoman conquest of Constantinople in 1453, then became a museum in 1935.

Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan, who critics say is gnawing at the secular pillars of the Muslim-majority country, announced Friday that Muslim prayers will begin on July 24 at the UNESCO World Heritage Site.

Several other Christian leaders have already spoken out against Turkey’s decision.

Bishop Hilarion, who heads the external relations department of the Russian Orthodox Church, described it as “a blow to world Christianity”.

The World Council of Churches, which represents 350 Christian churches, said it had written to Erdogan to express “his pain and dismay.”

– “Provocation to the civilized world” –

On Sunday, the head of the Greek Orthodox Church, Archbishop Ieronymos, denounced what he called “the instrumentalization of religion for partisan or geopolitical purposes”.

“Indignation and arrogance do not only concern the Orthodox Church and Christianity, but all civilized humanity … regardless of religion,” he added.

The Greek Minister of Culture, Lina Mendoni, adopted a similar point of view, describing Turkey’s decision as “a provocation to the civilized world”.

Prime Minister Kyriakos Mitsotakis also condemned this decision, not only for the damage it would cause to relations between Greece and Turkey, but also for Ankara’s relations with “the European Union, UNESCO and the community world ”.

The transformation of Hagia Sophia made the headlines of the Greek newspapers this weekend.

The Kathimerini newspaper highlighted the political dimension of Turkey’s decision, which it said effectively underlined the secular roots of modern Turkey and demonstrated “the megalomania of Erdogan”.

Erdogan rejected protests from Russia, the United States, France and UNESCO on Saturday.

“Those who do not take measures against Islamophobia in their own country … attack Turkey’s will to use its sovereign rights,” he said.

In the past, he had asked several times that the magnificent building be transformed into a mosque and in 2018, he recited a verse from the Koran in Hagia Sophia.

Erdogan’s announcement came after a higher court overturned a cabinet decision of 1934, under the tutelage of modern Turkish founder Mustafa Kemal Ataturk, to preserve the church that had become a mosque as a museum.

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