The interim secretary-general of the World Council of Churches has penned a letter to President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan to express his “grief and dismay” over Turkey’s decision to change the status of Istanbul’s landmark Hagia Sophia from a museum to a mosque.
As a World Heritage museum, “Hagia Sophia has been a place of openness, encounter and inspiration for people from all nations,” Ioan Sauca said in the letter released on July 11 by the Geneva-based group.
“I am obliged to convey to you the grief and dismay of the World Council of Churches – and of its 350 member churches in more than 110 countries, representing more than half a billion Christians around the world – at the step you have just taken,” Sauca said.
“By deciding to convert the Hagia Sophia back to a mosque you have reversed that positive sign of Turkey’s openness and changed it to a sign of exclusion and division. Regrettably, this decision has also been taken without prior notice or discussion with UNESCO regarding the impact of this decision on Hagia Sophia’s universal value recognized under the World Heritage Convention.”
Sauca said the museum status had been “a powerful expression” of Turkey’s commitment to inclusion and secularism.
“Mr. President, you have repeatedly affirmed modern Turkey’s identity as a secular state, but yesterday you overturned a commitment that since 1934 has preserved this historic monument as the shared heritage of humanity,” Sauca said.
“In the interests of promoting mutual understanding, respect, dialogue and cooperation, and avoiding cultivating old animosities and divisions, we urgently appeal to you to reconsider and reverse your decision,” he added.
French Foreign Minister Jean-Yves Le Drian also said France “deplores” Turkey’s decision on Hagia Sophia.
“These decisions cast doubt on one of the most symbolic acts of modern and secular Turkey,” the minister said in a statement.
“The integrity of this religious, architectural and historic jewel, a symbol of religious freedom, tolerance and diversity, listed as a UNESCO World Heritage Site, must be preserved,” he said. “Hagia Sophia must continue to represent the plurality and diversity of religious heritage, dialogue, and tolerance.”