Erdoğan rejects criticism over Hagia Sophia status spat

(Adds details from Russian Foreign Ministry spokesperson's statement)

Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan said on Friday criticism of his government’s ambition to revert Istanbul’s Hagia Sophia from a museum to a mosque “is an attack on Turkey’s sovereignty”.

“Accusations against our country about Hagia Sophia directly target our sovereign rights,” state-run Anadolu news agency reported Erdoğan as saying.

“We are determined to continue to protect the rights of Muslims, our country’s majority faith, as well as members of all other faiths and religions,” he added at the opening ceremony of the Barbaros Hayrettin Paşa Mosque in Istanbul.

Erdoğan’s comments were in response to protests from Western governments over the Turkey’s latest attempt to convert the UNESCO World Heritage site.

The United States had on Wednesday urged Ankara to keep the Hagia Sophia as a museum, a day before Turkey’s highest administrative court, the Council of State, was expected to decide whether to change the disputed landmark’s status.

The Council of State said it would announce its verdict by July 17.

Following the court’s announcement, Russia said it expected the decision by the Turkish court to be "measured" and accessible to all because of the issue’s importance for religious worshippers.

"Our fundamental position is that the cathedral is a landmark of exceptional cultural and historical importance as a global heritage site," said Russian Foreign Ministry spokesperson Maria Zakharova in a statement carried by the Twitter account of the Russian Embassy in Ankara.

"The Hagia Sophia is on the UNESCO World Heritage List, and we really do hope that all the requirements of this status, including the maintenance and accessibility of the site to the public, will be strictly complied with."

France and Greece made similar statements on the matter.

The Hagia Sophia, originally built as a cathedral of the Eastern Roman Empire in 537, was turned into a mosque by Ottoman Sultan Mehmet the Conqueror in 1453 after he conquered the city.

Over the years, Erdoğan has repeatedly suggested turning the UNESCO World Heritage Site into a mosque again to fulfil a long-standing demand by Turkey’s Islamists, much to Greece’s ire.