The Presidents of Churches Together in England have said they are "saddened" by the Turkish government's decision to convert a historic Byzantine-era cathedral into a functioning mosque.
Turkish President Recep Erdoğan has long been campaigning for the Hagia Sophia — which was converted into a museum back in 1934 — to become a permanent place of Islamic worship, despite its world heritage site status and rich Christian history. The president's wish was granted by Turkey's highest administrative court at the end of last week, and the Hagia Sophia was officially given the green light to open as a mosque.
Churches Together in England said: "For a long period of time Hagia Sophia has been a unique centre symbolising a co-existence of people of faith. It is a UNESCO World Heritage Site and, as a place where the rich history of Istanbul is told visually, can be a living example of religious tolerance and respect.
"The decision to alter the status quo in this way is a powerful, symbolic change that is lamentable and painful for many people of faith the world over."
The Presidents of Churches Together in England include Archbishop Justin Welby, Cardinal Vincent Nichols, Revd Dr Hugh Osgood, Archbishop Angaelos of London, and Pastor Agu Irukwu.
In a letter addressed to Erdoğan, the Interim Secretary General of the World Council of Churches (WCC) said: “Today, however, 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. 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.”
Christian Solidarity Worldwide's Chief Executive Mervyn Thomas, said in response: “We are deeply concerned that the decision to turn the Hagia Sophia Cathedral into a mosque will reawaken old animosities and transform a cathedral that epitomised mutual respect and coexistence into a flashpoint of division and religious tension.
"For decades, President Erdogan has been promoting religious ultra-nationalism which has undermined Turkey’s secular constitution and contributed to a rise in discrimination and hate speech that creates an enabling environment for violence against those who do not adhere to Sunni Islam. These policies are making the situation for religious minorities increasingly precarious and stirring sectarianism in the region and beyond.”