- The Pope’s words are the Catholic Church’s first official reaction on the move.
- President Erdogan dismissed the widespread international condemnation of his administration’s decision.
- Other countries, UNESCO, and the World Council of Churches also spoke out.
The head of the Catholic Church, Pope Francis, announced today that he was “very distressed” by the conversion of the old basilica of Hagia Sophia into a mosque. The pontiff spoke after the Sunday prayer of the Angelus. “The sea carries my thoughts farther, to Istanbul. I’m thinking of Santa Sofia,” Pope Francis said.
“I am very pained.” He spoke in reaction to the decision by Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan to convert Hagia Sophia— which was originally built in Istanbul as a Christian cathedral— from a museum to a mosque. The Pope’s words are the Catholic Church’s first official reaction on the move.
On his part, President Erdogan dismissed the widespread international condemnation of his administration’s decision. Erdogan justified the move, arguing that the decision is acceptable and within Turkey’s “sovereign rights.”
In a ceremony he attended via video-conference, Erdogan said, “those who do not take a step against Islamophobia in their own countries . . . attack Turkey’s will to use its sovereign rights.” He added, “we made this decision not looking at what others say but looking what our right is and what our nation wants, just like what we have done in Syria, in Libya and elsewhere.”
On Friday, the State Council, Turkey’s highest administrative court, accepted the request of several associations, having revoked a 1934 governmental measure that gave Hagia Sophia the status of a museum.
Following the decision, The Turkish president made an announcement to the effect that the former Byzantine basilica in Constantinople would be converted into a Mosque. Its doors will be open to the Muslim faithful for prayers as a mosque effective from Friday, July 24 .
The ancient basilica is a key architectural work that was constructed in the 6th century by the Byzantines, who crowned its emperors there. The building has a long, rich history. Converted into a mosque in 1453, after the capture of Constantinople by the Ottomans, it was transformed into a museum in 1934 by the leader of the young Turkish Republic, Mustafa Kemal Atatürk.
Atatürk offered the Hagia Sophia and dedicated it to the whole of humanity. It was classified as World Heritage site by UNESCO (United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization), and is one of the main tourist attractions in Istanbul. In 2019, it received about 3.8 million visitors.
Several countries, notably Russia and Greece, which closely follow the fate of the Byzantine heritage in Turkey, told Ankara that they weren’t happy about its decision to turn Hagia Sophia into a Mosque. The United States of America and France also voiced their displeasure.
UNESCO, on it’s part, lamented “deeply” the decision “taken without dialogue.” The World Council of Churches, which brings together some 350 Christian churches, including Protestant and Orthodox, expressed its “sadness” and “dismay” over the move by Ankara.
However, this is a measure that Erdogan, from an Islamist and conservative standpoint, has been in favor of for very many years.