Converting Istanbul's sixth-century Hagia Sophia back into a mosque would sow division, the spiritual head 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 has proposed restoring the mosque status of the UNESCO World Heritage Site, a building at the heart of both Christian Byzantine and Muslim Ottoman empires and today one of Turkey's most visited monuments.
The court is set to rule on July 2 on a challenge to its current status that disputes the legality of its conversion into a museum in 1934 in the early years of the modern secular Turkish state founded by Mustafa Kemal Ataturk.
"The conversion of Hagia Sophia into a mosque will disappoint millions of Christians around the world," said Ecumenical Patriarch Bartholomew, the spiritual head of some 300 million Orthodox Christians worldwide. He is based in Istanbul.
Hagia Sophia – the foremost church in Christendom for 900 years and then one of Islam's greatest mosques for 500 years after the Ottoman conquest of Istanbul, then known as Constantinople, in 1453 – is a vital centre where East and West embrace, he told a church congregation.
Changing its status will "fracture these two worlds" at a time when mankind needs unity more than ever because of the COVID-19 pandemic, Bartholomew said.