The Russian Orthodox Church has criticized Turkey's leaders for revoking the museum status of "one of the greatest Christian shrines," Istanbul's famous Hagia Sophia, accusing Ankara of playing politics.
Founded by the Christian emperor Justinian, the Hagia Sofia was consecrated in the year 537, as a Byzantine cathedral. For almost a thousand years, it operated as a church – sometimes Orthodox, sometimes Catholic – before being converted into a mosque in 1453, following the Byzantine Empire's fall.
Muslims gather for evening prayers in front of the Hagia Sophia in Istanbul, Turkey, July 10, 2020 © REUTERS/Murad Sezer
Nowadays, the Hagia Sophia is arguably the most popular tourist attraction in Turkey. On Friday, the Turkish Council of State annulled a 1934 decision to turn the Hagia Sophia in Istanbul into a museum. Immediately afterwards, President Recep Tayyip Erdogan issued a decree returning the iconic site to its former status as a mosque.
"It is a pity that political conditions prevail over respect for other religious traditions," said Metropolitan Hilarion of Volokolamsk, an Orthodox bishop and the chairman of the Department of External Church Relations in Russia.
"For Orthodox Christians, Hagia Sophia is the same as St. Peter's Basilica in Rome is for Catholics," he said, adding that the site is "one of the greatest Christian shrines."
“The conversion of Hagia Sophia into a mosque is a slap in the face that the Turkish leadership has inflicted on the Orthodox Church, with the whole Christian world.”
The event has also seen an adverse reaction from Russian politicians, with Senator Konstantin Kosachev claiming that the conversion "will trigger an extremely negative response throughout the entire Christian world."
Kosachev, the chairman of the Foreign Affairs Committee at the Federation Council, said that Ankara will "be seen as a violator of religious balance" and "will lose its clout."
While the move has caused widespread outcry, President Erdogan did note that the mosque would remain open for local and foreign visitors, "Muslims and non-Muslims," he said.
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