His All Holiness Ecumenical Patriarch Bartholomew, the spiritual leader of 300 million Orthodox Christians worldwide, has expressed grief over plans by Turkey to convert the 6th-century former Orthodox Christian cathedral of Hagia Sophia into a mosque.
"What can I say as a Christian clergyman and the Greek patriarch in Istanbul? Instead of uniting, a 1,500-year-old heritage is dividing us. I am saddened and shaken," said the Ecumenical Patriarch during an interview with the Washington Post.
He stressed that in Istanbul "we have survived for 17 centuries and we will stay here forever, as God wills."
The UNESCO World Heritage Site was built in 537 but turned into a mosque following the Ottoman capture of Constantinople May 29, 1453. It was then turned into a museum in 1935 shortly after the collapse of the Ottoman Empire and the establishment of Turkish Republic.
It is recalled that earlier this year, excerpts from the Qur’an were recited inside Hagia Sophia to commemorate the Fall of Constantinople. The Greek Foreign Ministry commented on this provocative action, saying that the “reading of excerpts from the Qur’an inside Hagia Sophia, a UNESCO World Heritage Site as part of the World Cultural Heritage Site, and that has been a museum since 1935, is an unacceptable attempt to alter its monumental character and provoke a response to their religious sentiment.”
“This action offends the international community and re-exposes Turkey, which must respect both the Convention Concerning the Protection of the World Cultural and Natural Heritage and UNESCO, of which it is a member,” the statement continued.
“We call once again on Turkey to respect its international obligations and to stop subordinating its highly honourable role in internal affairs as the custodian of such an important monument as Hagia Sophia, which belongs to all mankind,” the Foreign Ministry’s statement concluded.
On July 2, the Council of State of Turkey is expected to rule on the request to annul the presidential decree that turned Hagia Sophia into a museum in 1934.