Greece urges Turkey to keep Hagia Sophia as museum

·2-min read
FILE PHOTO: Byzantine-era monument of Hagia Sophia or Ayasofya is seen in Istanbul

Greece urges Turkey to keep Hagia Sophia as museum

FILE PHOTO: Byzantine-era monument of Hagia Sophia or Ayasofya is seen in Istanbul

ATHENS (Reuters) - Greece said on Thursday Turkey risked opening up "a huge emotional chasm" with Christian countries if it pressed ahead with a proposal to convert the Hagia Sophia museum in Istanbul into a mosque.

A Turkish court on Thursday heard a petition seeking to convert the massive sixth century building, originally built as a Christian cathedral and today one of Turkey's most visited tourist sites, back into a mosque.

The court will announce its verdict within 15 days, a lawyer said.

"Hagia Sophia is a world heritage monument... Many countries, culminating in the intervention of the U.S State Department, highlighted this very point, urging Turkey not to take steps which would create a huge emotional chasm between the Christians of the world and Turkey," Greek government spokesman Stelios Petsas told a news briefing.

U.S. Secretary of State Mike Pompeo on Wednesday urged Turkey to let Hagia Sophia, a UNESCO World Heritage Site, to remain a museum and to ensure it remains accessible to all.

Ecumenical Patriarch Bartholomew, the spiritual head of some 300 million Orthodox Christians worldwide and based in Istanbul, said converting it to a mosque would disappoint Christians and would "fracture" East and West.

Completed in the year 537 in what was then Constantinople, capital of the Byzantine empire, Hagia Sophia was the biggest cathedral in Christendom for 900 years before becoming a mosque after the city fell to the Ottoman Turks in 1453.

It was converted into a museum in 1934 under the founder of the modern secular Turkish republic, Kemal Ataturk, but the case before the court challenges the legality of this step.

President Tayyip Erdogan, a pious Muslim, has lent his support to turning Hagia Sophia, called Ayasofya in Turkish, back into a mosque.

(Reporting By Michele Kambas and Renee Maltezou; Editing by Gareth Jones)