The Russian Orthodox Church claims that creversing the Hagia Sophia monument in Istanbul from a museum to a mosque would be “unacceptable” while Turkey defended the decision, citing its sovereignty over the matter.
Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan proposed to restore the mosque status of the World Heritage Site recognized by UNSECO. The sixth century building was at the center of the Ottoman and Christian Byzantine and Muslim empires and is now one of Turkey’s most visited monuments.
“We cannot go back to the Middle Ages now,” said Metropolitan Ilarion, president of the Moscow Patriarchate department for external relations with the church on Saturday.
“We live in a multipolar world, we live in a multi-denominational world and we must respect the feelings of believers.”
He said that the Russian Orthodox Church did not understand the reason for the conversion of Hagia Sophia and that he believed that internal politics was the basis of the move.
The Turkish Hagia Sophia and the battle to convert it back into a mosque
“We believe that under current conditions this act represents an unacceptable violation of religious freedom,” said Hilarion.
The proposal has also been criticized by other religious and political leaders.
Ecumenical patriarch Bartholomew, based in Istanbul and spiritual leader of some 300 million Orthodox Christians around the world, said converting Hagia Sophia into a mosque would disappoint Christians and “fracture” East and West.
US Secretary of State Mike Pompeo and the Greek government have also urged Turkey to keep the building as a museum.
“Attack on Turkish sovereignty”
But Erdogan described foreign criticism of the proposal as an attack on Turkish sovereignty.
Speaking at the revolutionary mosque ceremony in Istanbul, Erdogan said that Turkey will always protect the rights of Muslims and minorities living in the country.
The Turkish president said there are 435 churches and synagogues in Turkey where Christians and Jews can pray.
The Hagia Sophia was used as a church for 916 years. In 1453, it was transformed into a mosque by the Ottoman Sultan Mehmet II when the empire conquered Istanbul.
Following the restoration works in the Ottoman era and the addition of minarets by the architect Mimar Sinan, the Hagia Sophia became one of the most important works of world architecture.
Under Turkish rule, it became a museum.
A Turkish court earlier this week heard a case for converting the building into a mosque and will announce its verdict later this month.
The court case, promoted by an NGO for the conservation of historical monuments, challenges the legality of a 1934 decision, at the dawn of the modern secular Turkish state under Mustafa Kemal Ataturk, to convert Hagia Sophia – known in Turkish as Ayasofya – from a mosque in a museum.