Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan has invited Pope Francis to the former Byzantine-era church, Hagia Sophia, after the government was given the go-ahead to convert it into a functioning mosque. News of Erdoğan's decision to invite a number special guests to the Hagia reopening comes as officials warn that the historic Christian mosaics and iconography that adorn the walls will be covered up by curtains during times of Islamic prayer.
“We are making some arrangements to ensure that during Muslim prayers, the mosaics will be covered but not touched,” President Erdoğan's spokesperson, Ibrahim Kalin, told CNN. “The main point here is that there is no damage to these mosaics, depictions, the historical texture, and architecture of the building."
Following the decision to convert the iconic building — which has been functioning as a museum since 1934 — into a mosque, Pope Francis said: "My thoughts go to Istanbul. I think of Hagia Sophia and I am very saddened." The move was condemned by the heads of Greek Orthodox Church along with many senior clergy across the globe.
On Monday, Greek President Katerina Sakellaropoulou personally called on Pope Francis to put pressure on Turkey to reconsider the mosque conversion, which she said was “explicitly and unequivocally condemned” by the international community and “deeply hurts those who consider this top symbol of Christianity to belong to humanity and the world’s cultural heritage".
Kalin said that the adverse reactions were "based on old views and prejudices" and insisted that "there is religious freedom in Turkey”.
Erdoğan has announced that the Hagia Sophia will be open for Islamic prayer on 24th July. Originally constructed as a cathedral, the 1,500-year-old structure once functioned as the seat of the Greek Orthodox Church. Following the 1453 capture of Constantinople (now Istanbul), it was converted into a mosque, and then finally a museum. It is known as a symbolic hub for interfaith dialogue between Muslims and Christians. The building is also protected as a world heritage site. Despite warnings from both UNESCO and several leading political and religious figures as to the damage the conversion would inflict on, Erdoğan marched forward with the plans.
Some 500 socially distanced worshippers, including the president, are due to attend prayers on Friday.