Hagia Sophia: Letter from World Council of Churches to Turkey

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NEWS CENTER - The World Council of Churches has called on Turkey's President Recep Tayyip Erdogan to reverse his decision to turn the celebrated Hagia Sophia museum back into a mosque.

On Friday, ruling Justice and Development Party (AKP) leader and President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan announced that the Hagia Sophia Museum, one of the world's architectural wonders, would be reopened for Muslim worship as a mosque. Erdoğan's declaration came after a top Turkish court revoked a 1934 Turkish decision that turned the sixth-century Byzantine monument into a museum. The Unesco World Heritage site in Istanbul has been a museum since 1934. 
 
In a letter to Mr Erdogan, the Council, which counts 350 churches as members, said the move would sow division. The Geneva-based World Council of Churches said it represents more than 500 million Christians. The letter is from Ioan Sauca, interim general secretary, who says the Council feels "grief and dismay". 
 
The colossal Hagia Sophia was built 1,500 years ago as an Orthodox Christian cathedral and was converted into a mosque after the Ottomans conquered İstanbul, in 1453. The secular Turkish government decided in 1934 to make it a museum, and millions of tourists have visited the landmark annually.
 
'A SIGN OF EXCLUSION AND DIVISION'
 
The World Council of Churches chief expressed hope that Hagia Sophia will not become once again a "focus of confrontation and conflict". He noted that the decision to convert the museum reversed positive sign of Turkey’s openness. The interim general secretary of WCC asserted that Hagia Sophia has been “a powerful expression of the Republic of Turkey’s commitment to secularism and inclusion and of its desire to leave behind the conflicts of the past.”
 
"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," wrote Sauca and added that the decision "will inevitably create uncertainties, suspicions and mistrust, undermining all our efforts to bring people of different faiths together at the table of dialogue and co-operation".
 
"In the interests of promoting mutual understanding, respect, dialogue and co-operation, and avoiding cultivating old animosities and divisions, we urgently appeal to you to reconsider and reverse your decision," the letter continues.
 
REACTION FROM THE WORLD
 
The United States, Greece and church leaders were among those to express concern about changing the status of the huge sixth-century building. The U.S. State Department has said it was "disappointed" by the decision and looks forward to seeing how Turkey plans to keep the landmark open to all. 
 
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.
 
'UNESCO DEEPLY REGRETS THE DECISION'
 
UNESCO expressed deep regret at the move and called for Turkey to open dialogue "without delay." "UNESCO calls on the Turkish authorities to open a dialog without delay in order to avoid a step back from the universal value of this exceptional heritage whose preservation will be reviewed by the World Heritage Committee in its next session," the United Nation's cultural body said in a statement.
 
CHURCH LEADERS: OPEN PROVOCATION TO THE CIVILISED WORLD
 
The head of the Eastern Orthodox Church has condemned the move. reece, home to many millions of Orthodox followers, called it an "open provocation to the civilised world". 
 
EUROPEAN UNION: THE DECISION IS REGRETTABLE
 
The European Union's foreign policy chief Josep Borrell called the decision "regrettable".
 
"The ruling by the Turkish Council of State to overturn one of modern Turkey's landmark decisions and President Erdogan's decision to place the monument under the management of the Religious Affairs Presidency is regrettable," he said in a statement.
 
'GREECE CATEGORICALLY CONDEMNS TURKEY'S DECISION'
 
“Greece categorically condemns Turkey’s decision to convert Hagia Sophia to a mosque,” Greek Prime Minister Kyriakos Mitsotakis said, adding that the conversion “is an affront to its ecumenical character.”
 
“Furthermore, it is a decision that offends all those who recognise Hagia Sophia as an indispensable part of world cultural heritage. This decision clearly affects not only Turkey’s relations with Greece but also its relations with the European Union, UNESCO, and the world community as a whole,” he said.
 
'CYPRUS STRONGLY CONDEMNS TURKEY'S ACTIONS'
 
Cypriot Foreign Minister Nikos Christodoulides, a Greek Cypriot, posted on his official Twitter account that Cyprus "strongly condemns Turkey's actions on Hagia Sophia in its effort to distract domestic opinion and calls on Turkey to respect its international obligations".
 

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