Last week, Istanbul’s Hagia Sophia hosted its first Islamic prayers in 85 years, despite fierce criticism of the Turkish government’s campaign to revert the building to a mosque after being a museum for decades. Following a decree made by Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan on 10 July, the historic building has once again been reclassified as a mosque. Mosaics depicting Christian icons and symbols have been covered during prayer times.

The Turkish president attended the inaugural prayers on Friday, a day Orthodox leaders in Greece and the United States observed as a day of mourning.

Pope Francis, and Christian leaders around the world, have expressed deep regret at the decision to change the status of the historic site.

The president of the Australian Catholic Bishops Conference, Archbishop Mark Coleridge, and Archbishop Makarios, Archbishop of Australia and Primate of the Greek Orthodox Church have expressed ‘deep regret’ in a joint statement, saying Hagia Sophia’s revised status as a mosque with sow division in an already divided world.

The archbishops said the building has, for the past 85 years, been ‘a monument of world cultural heritage and a symbol of inclusivity.’

The statement, released on 24 July, says ‘Our fear is that this could aggravate tension between Christians and Muslims at a time when we need to pursue the path of dialogue and seek common ground. The path of nationalist ideology and the political decisions it prompts can lead only to division, which is never the fruit of the holy wisdom all religions seek.’

From the Archdiocese of Melbourne’s Ecumenism and Interfaith Relations, the Chair of the Commission and Episcopal Vicar Fr Denis Stanley also joined in expressing disappointment at the change of status from museum to mosque.

‘Hagia Sofia has a richly symbolic history that cannot be ignored. It is a building loved by many. Yes, it is an architectural jewel, a jewel that shines with the faith of the Eastern Church that built it as a house of worship in 537 AD.’

‘The Turkish Government has recently changed the status of Hagia Sofia from a museum to a mosque. This has aroused many deep feelings. The Holy Father, Francis has spoken of his pain over the decision. The World Council of Churches expresses it “grief and dismay”. Bartholomew, the Patriarch of Constantinople says, “I am saddened and shaken.”

‘In the last few days, the President of the Australian Catholic Bishops Conference, Archbishop Coleridge and the Greek Orthodox Archbishop of Australia, Makarios, have issued what I believe is their first joint statement, lamenting this decision to change Hagia Sofia from museum to mosque.

‘They pray that in time this decision will be reversed, “so that Hagia Sophia/Aya Sofya can again be common ground for all people and an emblem of peace.”

‘The Ecumenical and Interfaith Commission of the Catholic Archdiocese of Melbourne supports and commends this joint letter.’

‘This is an opportunity not to be lost. Now Western Christians and Eastern Christians can share each other’s sadness, protest this decision and affirm the wisdom of Hagia Sofia remaining a symbol for all of encounter, history, spiritual aspiration and human achievement of the highest order.’