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The New Arab Staff & Agencies

World Council of Churches expresses 'grief and dismay' over Hagia Sophia decision

Turkey's decision drew widespread criticism from world powers [Getty]

Date of publication: 11 July, 2020

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The council of 350 churches worldwide wrote to Turkey's president to express its opposition to the move.

The World Council of Churches, which represents 350 Christian churches, said Saturday it wrote to Turkey's President expressing "grief and dismay" over his decision to turn the Hagia Sophia back into a mosque.

"Hagia Sophia has been a place of openness, encounter and inspiration for people from all nations and religions" since 1934 when it was turned from a mosque into a museum, the Geneva-based council's interim general secretary Ioan Sauca said in the letter.

A magnet for tourists worldwide, the Hagia Sophia was first constructed as a cathedral in the Christian Byzantine Empire but was converted into a mosque after the Ottoman conquest of Constantinople in 1453. 

On Friday, Erdogan, who has chipped away at the Muslim-majority country's secularism, announced Muslim prayers on July 24 at the UNESCO World Heritage site, transforming the iconic landmark from a museum to a mosque after numerous attempts over the years.

Erdogan's announcement came after the cancellation of a decision under modern Turkey's secularising founder Mustafa Kemal Ataturk to preserve the church-turned-mosque as a museum.

The decision drew widespread criticism from world powers, including the US, who described disappointment, grief and dismay over the move.

"We are disappointed by the decision by the government of Turkey to change the status of the Hagia Sophia," State Department spokeswoman Morgan Ortagus said.

"We understand the Turkish government remains committed to maintaining access to the Hagia Sophia for all visitors, and look forward to hearing its plans for continued stewardship of the Hagia Sophia to ensure it remains accessible without impediment for all," she said.

‘Let the chains break’

Hagia Sophia has been a museum since 1935 and open to believers of all faiths.

Transforming it from a mosque was a key reform under the new republic born out of the ashes of the Ottoman Empire.

The landmark ruling will inflame tensions not just with the West and its historic foe Greece but also Russia, with which Erdogan has forged an increasingly close partnership in recent years.

The UN's cultural agency UNESCO earlier Friday warned Turkey against converting Hagia Sophia  into a mosque, urging dialogue before any decision was taken.

Read more: Hagia Sophia conversion plan comes at testing times for Turkey's Erdogan

Ahead of the court decision, Justice Minister Abdulhamit Gul shared a picture of Hagia Sophia on his official Twitter account, with a message: "Have a good Friday."

Finance Minister Berat Albayrak, Erdogan's son-in-law, tweeted that Hagia Sophia would be reopened to Muslim worship "sooner or later", referring to a quote from Turkish poet Necip Fazil Kisakurek. 

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