ISTANBUL (Reuters) – The conversion of Istanbul’s sixth-century Hagia Sophia into a mosque would sow division, the spiritual leader of the world’s Orthodox Christians warned on Tuesday, ahead of a Turkish court ruling on a building that has been a museum since 1934 .
President Tayyip Erdogan proposed to restore the mosque status of the UNESCO World Heritage Site, a building at the heart of the Byzantine Christian and Ottoman Muslim empires and today one of Turkey’s most visited monuments.
The court is due to rule on July 2 on a challenge to its current status which challenges the legality of its conversion into a museum in 1934 in the early years of the modern secular Turkish state founded by Mustafa Kemal Atatürk.
“The conversion of Hagia Sophia into a mosque will disappoint millions of Christians around the world,” said Ecumenical Patriarch Bartholomew, spiritual leader of some 300 million Orthodox Christians around the world. He is based in Istanbul.
Hagia Sophia – the largest church in Christendom for 900 years, then one of the largest mosques in Islam for 500 years after the Ottoman conquest of Istanbul, then known as Constantinople, in 1453 – is a vital center where East and West embrace, he told a church congregation.
Changing its status will “shatter these two worlds” at a time when humanity needs unity more than ever due to the COVID-19 pandemic, Bartholomew said.
“AFFAIR OF NATIONAL SOVEREIGNTY”
However, groups have campaigned for years for the conversion of Hagia Sophia into a mosque and Erdogan, a devout Muslim, backed their call ahead of last year’s local elections.
Many Turks argue that the mosque status would better reflect Turkey’s identity as a predominantly Muslim country, and recent polls show that most Turks support change.
The United States and neighboring Greece have both expressed concerns over the attempt to restore the building’s mosque status, known in Turkish as Ayasofya.
US Religious Freedom Envoy Ambassador Sam Brownback said he was of enormous spiritual and cultural significance to billions of believers of different faiths around the world and called on Ankara to retain his status.
Turkish Foreign Minister Mevlut Cavusoglu criticized international interference. “It is a question of national sovereignty,” he said in a television interview. “What is important is what the Turkish people want.”
Writing by Daren Butler; Editing by Jonathan Spicer and Gareth Jones