Christians argue over Hagia Sophia’s status as mosque decision looms

Turkey’s Christian community is divided over the status of Istanbul’s Hagia Sophia, a 6th century church turned museum, which Ankara has long-considered transforming into a mosque, Christianity Today magazine said on Monday.

The fate of the Byzantine basilica, a UNESCO World Heritage Site, is set to be determined on July 2, when a Turkish high court will rule if it can be opened to Muslim prayers after 85 years as a museum.

The efforts by Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan, leader of the ruling Islamist Justice and Development Party (AKP), to retransform the structure into a mosque have found unlikely support from the Armenian patriarch, Christian Today said.

“I believe that believers’ praying suits better the spirit of the temple than curious tourists running around to take pictures,” Armenian Patriarch Şahak II, a resident of Istanbul, tweeted last week.

“The site is large enough to allocate a space for Christians, [so that] the world can applaud our religious peace and maturity.”

Another anchor in the Christian community, Ecumenical Patriarch Bartholomew I, the leader of the 300 million Orthodox Christians worldwide, however, has expressed his concern over the possible conversion.

“Instead of uniting, a 1,500-year-old heritage is dividing us,” said the Istanbul resident Greek patriarch. “I am saddened and shaken.”

The move by Turkey’s Council of State is to examine the request for annulment of the presidential decree of 1934 that turned the Hagia Sophia from a mosque into a museum has also received the condemnation of UNESCO, Greece, and the U.S. ambassador-at-large for religious freedom, Christian Today said.

U.S. Ambassador Sam Brownback has called on Ankara to "maintain it as a UNESCO World Heritage site … in its current status as a museum."

“The Hagia Sophia holds enormous spiritual and cultural significance to billions of believers of different faiths around the world,” Brownback tweeted.

But at home, Turkey’s Erdoğan has overwhelming support for the move, it said, pointing to a recent poll that found 73 percent of Turks favour the transformation.