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Erdogan defends converting Istanbul's Hagia Sophia against criticism

Christian leaders have condemned decision to turn iconic site, originally a cathedral and later a Muslim centre of worship, back into a mosque
The Hagia Sophia, a museum since the 1930s, attracts millions of tourists each year (AFP)

Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan has hit back against criticism of his decision to convert Istanbul's iconic Hagia Sophia back into a mosque, accusing critics of not protecting religious minorities in their own countries. 

Erodgan said it was "our right" to convert the Hagia Sophia, also known as the Ayasofya, back into a mosque after a court on Friday cancelled a decision made in the 1930s by Mustafa Kemal Ataturk, the founder of modern Turkey, to convert it into a museum. It attracts millions of tourists each year.

Built in the 6th century as a Christian cathedral, the Hagia Sophia had been a mosque since 1453, when the Ottomans took over what was then Constantinople. It  is still revered by Greek Orthodox Christians and Erdogan's decision has prompted outrage across the Christian world. 

'Those who do not take a step against Islamophobia in their own countries … attack Turkey's will to use its sovereign rights'

- Recep Tayyip Erdogan

"Those who do not take a step against Islamophobia in their own countries … attack Turkey's will to use its sovereign rights," Erdogan said during a ceremony he attended via video-conference.

Erdogan framed the decision in terms of Turkish interests, saying it was "what our nations wants" and comparing it to Turkey's military interventions "in Syria, in Libya and elsewhere".

A statement from Erdogan's office insisted the site would remain "open to all, whether they be foreign or local, Muslim or non-Muslim". 

Greece's culture minister called the court decision "open provocation to the civilised world", while the Russian Orthodox Church said that it was "a blow to global Christianity".

The World Council of Churches, which represents 350 Christian churches, said Turkey's decision was a shift towards "exclusion and division".

The move would "inevitably create uncertainties, suspicions and mistrust, undermining all our efforts to bring people of different faiths together at the table of dialogue and cooperation", the statement said.

On Sunday, Pope Francis became the latest religious leader to condemn the move.

"My thoughts go to Istanbul. I think of Santa Sophia and I am very pained," he said, during his weekly blessing in St Peter's Square, Rome.

Meanwhile, the US State Department said in a statement that it was "disappointed" by the decision but looked forward to hearing the plans "to ensure it remains accessible without impediment for all".