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Orthodox Patriarch says turning Istanbul's Hagia Sophia into mosque would be divisive

A drone photo shows an aerial view of Hagia Sophia, in Istanbul, Turkey on 6 June 2020 [Lokman Akkaya/Anadolu Agency]
A drone photo shows an aerial view of Hagia Sophia, in Istanbul, Turkey on 6 June 2020 [Lokman Akkaya/Anadolu Agency]

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.

READ: ‘Any decision on Hagia Sophia is an internal matter’, says Turkish Foreign Ministry

“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.

OPINION: Will European protests prevent the Hagia Sophia Museum becoming a mosque?

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