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Russian Orthodox Church says 'unacceptable' to turn Hagia Sophia into a mosque

Church calls on Ankara 'to respect the feelings of believers' ahead of court ruling on status of building

Converting Istanbul's Hagia Sophia from a museum back to a mosque would be "unacceptable", a senior official in the Russian Orthodox Church said on Saturday.

The intervention from the world's largest Orthodox community comes just days after US Secretary of State Mike Pompeo urged Turkey to keep the building as a museum.

Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan has proposed restoring the mosque status of the Unesco World Heritage Site, a 6th century building at the heart of both the Christian Byzantine and Muslim Ottoman empires, and now one of Turkey's most visited monuments.

US top diplomat Pompeo urges Turkey not to convert Hagia Sophia into mosque
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"We can't go back to the Middle Ages now," Metropolitan Hilarion, chairman of the Moscow Patriarchate's department for external church relations, said on state television, Russia's Interfax news agency reported.

"We live in a multi-polar world, we live in a multi-confessional world and we need to respect the feelings of believers."

Hilarion said the Russian Orthodox Church did not understand the motive for Hagia Sophia's conversion and that it believed domestic politics was behind the move.

"We believe that in the current conditions this act is an unacceptable violation of religious freedom," he was quoted as saying.

Court ruling

A Turkish court earlier this week heard a case aimed at converting the building back into a mosque and will announce its verdict later this month.

The court case, brought by an NGO for preserving historic monuments, disputes the legality of a decision in 1934, in the early days of the modern secular Turkish state under Mustafa Kemal Ataturk, to convert Hagia Sophia - known in Turkish as Ayasofya - from a mosque into a museum.

Erdogan has in the past rejected calls to convert the museum into a mosque, but since 2016 he has endorsed symbolic steps to reintroduce Islamic practices into the building.

In 2016, the government allowed the recitation of the Islamic call to prayer inside the building and later assigned an imam to a small chamber where people have been allowed to pray since 1991.

'We live in a multi-polar world, we live in a multi-confessional world and we need to respect the feelings of believers'

- Russian Orthodox Church

The Greek government has also urged Turkey to keep the building as a museum.

In a statement released on Wednesday, Pompeo, said: "We urge the government of Turkey to continue to maintain the Hagia Sophia as a museum as an exemplar of its commitment to respect the faith traditions and diverse history that contributed to the Republic of Turkey and to ensure it remains accessible to all.”

Erdogan has described foreign criticism over the proposal as an attack on Turkey's sovereignty.

But the move has been criticised by other religious and political leaders.

Ecumenical Patriarch Bartholomew, the spiritual head of some 300 million Orthodox Christians worldwide and who is based in Istanbul, said converting it into a mosque would disappoint Christians and would "fracture" relations between east and west.