Pope Francis on Sunday said he was “very saddened” over Turkey’s decision to convert the Byzantine-era Hagia Sophia back into a mosque, according to international media outlets.
“My thoughts go to İstanbul. I’m thinking about Hagia Sophia. I am very distressed,” the pope said in the Vatican’s first reaction to a decision that has drawn international criticism.
The Vatican newspaper Osservatore Romano had on Saturday carried reactions from various countries about Friday’s decision to turn the monument from a museum back into a mosque but without any comment.
A magnet for tourists worldwide, Hagia Sophia was first constructed as a cathedral during the Christian Byzantine Empire but was converted into a mosque after the Ottoman conquest of İstanbul in 1453.
President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan, who critics say is chipping away at the Muslim-majority country’s secular pillars, announced Friday that Muslim prayers would begin on July 24 at the UNESCO World Heritage Site.
In the past he repeatedly called for the colossal building to be renamed a mosque and in 2018, he recited a verse from the Qur’an at Hagia Sophia.
Erdoğan’s announcement came after a top court canceled a 1934 cabinet decision under modern Turkey’s secularizing founder, Mustafa Kemal Atatürk, to preserve the church-turned-mosque as a museum.