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World Council of Churches criticizes Hagia Sophia decision

People take pictures as they celebrate Turkey's decision that the 1,500 year old Unesco World Heritage site Hagia Sophia can be converted into a mosque, in front of the Hagia Sophia, in Istanbul, Turkey Saturday. Turkey's highest administration court on Friday ruled that the museum that was once a mosque built in a Cathedral can be turned into a mosque again by anulling its status as museum. Photo by Erdem Sahin/EPA-EFE
People take pictures as they celebrate Turkey's decision that the 1,500 year old Unesco World Heritage site Hagia Sophia can be converted into a mosque, in front of the Hagia Sophia, in Istanbul, Turkey Saturday. Turkey's highest administration court on Friday ruled that the museum that was once a mosque built in a Cathedral can be turned into a mosque again by anulling its status as museum. Photo by Erdem Sahin/EPA-EFE

July 11 (UPI) -- The World Council of Churches wrote a letter to Turkey's president this week to reverse his decision to turn the Hagia Sophia museum into a mosque.

"Since it began functioning as a museum in 1934, Hagia Sophia has been a place of openness, encounter and inspiration for people from all nations and religions, and a powerful expression of the Republic of Turkey's commitment to secularism and inclusion and of its desire to leave behind the conflicts of the past," said the letter from the council, whose membership includes 350 member churches in 110 countries.

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"By deciding to convert the Hagia Sophia back to a mosque you have reversed that positive sign of Turkey's openness and changed it to a sign of exclusion and division. Regrettably, this decision has also been taken without prior notice or discussion with UNESCO regarding the impact of this decision on Hagia Sophia's universal value recognized under the World Heritage Convention."

Turkey's highest court ruled Friday that the building could be converted back to a mosque, a decision supported by Turkish president Tayyip Erdogan but opposed by world leaders elsewhere, including the United States.

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The Hagia Sophia was built 1,500 years ago as an Orthodox Christian cathedral but converted to a mosque after the Ottoman conquest in 1453, then converted to a museum on the orders of Mustafa Kemal Ataturk in the interest of fostering a more modern, secular country.

Erdogan defended his decision at a ceremony he attended via video-conference on Saturday.

"Those who do not take a step against Islamophobia in their own countries ... attack Turkey's will to use its sovereign rights," Erdogan said.

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