POPE Francis said he was “pained” by the decision to revert the Hagia Sophia museum into a mosque following a ruling by a Turkish court on its status.
“My thoughts go to Istanbul,” Pope Francis (pictured) said while thinking of seafarers on Sea Sunday last week.
“I think of Santa Sophia and I am very pained.”
He made the off the cuff remarks while greeting seafarers, saying that “the sea carries me a little farther away” and to Istanbul.
He used the Italian word “addolorato” which could be translated as “pained” or “distressed.”
The Turkish court ruled that the site of Hagia Sophia could not possibly be used for anything but a mosque.
Turkish President Tayyip Erdogan announced the first Muslim prayers would be heard in Hagia Sophia on July 24.
Shortly after his announcement, the first call to prayer was recited and broadcasted on all of Turkey’s main news channels.
It was a “matter of sovereignty”, Turkish justice minister Abdulahmit Gul said in the lead-up to the court ruling.
Millions of Turkish Muslims shared this sentiment, making it a rallying cry for protests back in June.
But it was also a matter of secularity, especially for other European Union nations that held concerns about how much religious pressure was applied on politics in secular Turkey.
Amid the June protests, Turkish Catholic bishops had pledged not to contest the plans to turn it into a mosque.
“We are a church deprived of juridical status, so we cannot give any advice on this country’s internal questions,” the Turkish bishops’ conference said in a statement.
“Although we would wish Hagia Sophia to retain its character as a museum, it isn’t for us to intervene or even give our opinion on a decision which solely concerns the Republic of Turkey.”
The statement reflected the uneasiness felt by Turkey’s Christian minorities in the Muslim majority country.
But other Christian leaders voiced their opposition, including Constantinople Ecumenical Patriarch Bartholomew I and Russian Orthodox Bishop Hilarion Alfeyev.
Bishop Alfeyev said Hagia Sophia held “the same value” for Orthodox Christians as Catholics held for St Peter’s Basilica in Rome.
There was also an economic cost to the plan to convert it back.
About 3.3 million people visited the site annually before the pandemic and it contributed heavily to tourism in Istanbul.
And while President Erdogan assured non-Muslims would be welcome to visit and pray at the mosque, the site’s status would change the way the tourist industry approached it.
The status change also risked the UNESCO World Heritage stamp.
Originally built as a cathedral under the reign of Byzantine Emperor Justinian I in AD 537, it was then the world’s largest interior space and the first to have a fully pendentive dome.
Hagia Sophia was a cathedral for more than 900 years.
In 1453, after the sack of Constantinople, Mehmed the Conqueror ordered the cathedral to be converted into a mosque.
It remained that way until 1931 when it was closed and re-opened in 1935 as a museum by the secular Republic of Turkey.
The Christian dedication, Hagia Sophia, means Wisdom of God – or in Greek the Logos, or the Word, which is the second person of Trinity before “the Word became flesh and dwelt among us” as Christ. (John 1:14).