Pope Francis said on Sunday that he is "deeply pained" over the decision by Turkey to change the status of Hagia Sophia - which was originally built in Istanbul as a Christian cathedral - from a museum to a mosque.
In a very brief, improvised remark, Francis, speaking from his studio window overlooking St. Peter´s Square, noted that the Catholic Church marked Sunday as International Day of the Sea. "And the sea brings me a little far away with my thought: to Istanbul," the pontiff said. "I am thinking of St. Sophia and I am deeply pained."
Francis said no more but was clearly referring to the move by Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan to formally convert the monumental building back into a mosque.
The colossal Santa Sophia cathedral was turned into a mosque after the Ottomans conquered the city in 1453. The Turkish secular government in 1934 decided to make it a museum.
Francis, speaking from his studio window overlooking St. Peter´s Square said : 'I am thinking of St. Sophia and I am deeply pained'
The pope, who heads the Roman Catholic church, is adding his voice to strong objections a day earlier by the head of the Geneva-based World Council of Churches. That organization described its "grief and dismay" in noting that Hagia Sophia has been "a place of openness, encounter and inspiration for people from all nations." The council's membership comprises Protestant, Orthodox and Anglican churches.
Erdogan declared the monument open for Muslim worship after a high court annulled the 1934 government decision.
Erdogan, a devout Muslim, has frequently used the debate over Hagia Sophia to drum up support for his Islamic-rooted party. The decision has provoked deep dismay among Orthodox Christians and strong criticism from neighbor and rival Greece.
French Foreign Minister Jean-Yves Le Drian also said France "deplores" Turkey´s decision on Hagia Sophia.
Muslims offer their evening prayers outside the Byzantine-era Hagia Sophia, following Turkey's Council of State's decision to convert it back into a Muslim house of worship
"These decisions cast doubt on one of the most symbolic acts of modern and secular Turkey," the minister said in a statement.
"The integrity of this religious, architectural and historic jewel, a symbol of religious freedom, tolerance and diversity, listed as a UNESCO World Heritage Site, must be preserved," he said. "Hagia Sophia must continue to represent the plurality and diversity of religious heritage, dialogue and tolerance."
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.