The Greek president has lobbied Pope Francis to pressure Turkey to backtrack on Hagia Sophia.
– Invitation to pontiff to join international pressure to turn basilica back into museum
President Katerina Sakellaropoulou called the pontiff July 20 to discuss with him the July 10 decisions of Turkey’s highest court, the Council of State, and of President Recep Tayyip Erdogan to open for Muslim prayers again the Istanbul monument that has been a secular State museum since 1935, according to a press release from the Presidency of the Hellenic Republic.
Sakellaropoulou thanked the Pope for his words on Hagia Sophia, which was built as a Byzantine basilica in 537 and was converted into a mosque upon the Fall of Constantinople in 1453, a memory still painfully recent for the world’s Orthodox Christians.
In the Angelus July 12, Francis admitted: “I think of Hagia Sophia, and I am very saddened”.
The Greek president invited the Pope to join the international pressure on Turkish President Erdogan to reverse the decision to turn the basilica into a mosque and to restore the monument to its status of museum.
– Mosque decision “deeply distressed those who believe that this leading symbol of Christianity belongs to humanity”
According to the statement from the Greek Presidency, Sakellaropoulou insisted to the Pope that the Hagia Sophia mosque reconversion “deeply distressed those who believe that this leading symbol of Christianity belongs to humanity and the world cultural heritage”.
The decision also “moves Turkey away from the values of secularism and the principles of tolerance and pluralism”, the Greek President denounced.
The move to change the monument’s status, Sakellaropoulou stressed, cannot be considered “an internal affair of Turkey but a broader issue that must be explicitly and unequivocally condemned by the international community”.
For that reason, the Greek President pleaded with the Pope “to use all his influence to raise general awareness internationally so as that the Turkish leadership reverses its decision and re-establishes the status of Hagia Sophia as a protected monument”, in the words of the Greek authorities.
According to the communiqué, the pontiff “agreed” with Sakellaropoulou’s observations, “acknowledged” the “political motives” of Turkish President Erdogan in undertaking the change in Hagia Sophia’s status and “promised to continue his efforts, as part of his role, to reverse the decision”.
Other highlights from the phone call between Pope and President, according to the Hellenic Republic, included papal praise for Greece’s efforts in receiving refugees and immigrants and an invitation from Sakellaropoulou for the pontiff to visit Greece in 2021, the 200th anniversary of the Greek revolution.
The Pope reportedly accepted that invitation, contingent on an improvement in the situation caused by the coronavirus pandemic.
– Russian Orthodox Church: “A blow to the entire world Orthodoxy”
Preparations are currently underway for Hagia Sophia to reopen for Muslim prayers again this Friday July 24, with the Diyanet, Turkey’s Directorate of Religious Affairs, confirming that the basilica’s priceless Christian mosaics and icons will be curtained off and unlit “through appropriate means during prayer times”.
Despite assurances from Turkish authorities that the building will continue to be open to people of all religions and nationalities free of charge – and that the monument will continue to protected as a World Heritage Site – the Orthodox Churches are continuing to cry foul.
On July 17, the Russian Orthodox Church became the latest denomination to denounce that the mosque reconversion decision “has hurt [the] religious feelings of millions of Christians all over the world” and “can cause [the] disturbance of interfaith balance and impair mutual understanding between Christians and Muslims both in and beyond Turkey”.
“It is a blow to the entire world Orthodoxy”, Russian Orthodox Church ‘Foreign Minister’ Metropolitan Hilarion added.
“I think that the Turkish leaders did realise what impression this decision would make on the whole Orthodox world, but the reaction of Orthodox people has been ignored. For the Orthodox Church Hagia Sophia is the same as St. Peter’s Cathedral is for the Catholics”, the hierarch deplored.