ANKARA, Turkey -- Turkey’s foreign minister on Tuesday chided the European Union over its condemnation of a Turkish decision to convert Istanbul’s iconic Hagia Sophia from a museum to a mosque, saying the matter is an issue of national sovereignty.
Last week, Turkey canceled the sixth-century former cathedral-turned-mosque’s 86-year status as a museum and said it would open for Muslim worship as of July 24.
The decision sparked criticism in the United States, Greece, and other Western countries as well as from Orthodox Christian leaders. Pope Francis expressed sadness over the move.
EU foreign ministers, holding their first face-to-face meeting in months on Monday, declared that they “condemned” the decision. EU foreign affairs chief Josep Borrell said there was “broad support to call on the Turkish authorities to urgently consider and reverse this decision.”
Asked to comment on the EU criticism, Foreign Minister Mevlut Cavusoglu told a joint news conference with his visiting Maltese counterpart: “We reject the word ‘condemnation.’"
“This is a matter that concerns Turkey’s sovereign rights,” he said.
He argued that there were several mosques in EU-member Spain that had been converted into churches.
Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan, meanwhile, described the 1934 decision by the Turkish Republic's secular, founding leaders that converted Hagia Sofia from a mosque into a museum as a mistake.
“We are rectifying a mistake. It's as simple as that,” Erdogan said in a televised address, following a weekly Cabinet meeting.
Erdogan maintained that the criticisms leveled against Turkey over Hagia Sophia's return to a mosque were a “pretext” for enmity toward Turkey and Islam. He also said his country was determined to preserve the structure's qualities as a cultural heritage.
On Tuesday, Greece again expressed dismay at Turkey’s decision.
“This decision is certainly painful to us as Greek Orthodox Christians but it also hurts us as citizens of the world,” said Greek Prime Minister Kyriakos Mitsotakis. “This is not a Greek-Turkish issue, it is not even a Euro-Turkish issue, it is global. It is a universal issue.”
Mitsotakis added: “With this setback, Turkey is choosing to sever ties with the Western world and its values. It abandons a cultural direction of many centuries, preferring introversion. And it wraps with an artificial mantle of strength over its weakness.”
Meanwhile, officials from Turkey's religious affairs authority, said the landmark structure can remain open to visitors outside of prayer hours, the state-run Anadolu Agency reported.
The Christian depictions inside are no obstacle to Muslim prayers, said the officials who are preparing the site for Muslim worship. They added however, that the figures would need to be covered with curtains or through other means during the prayers, in line with Islamic traditions that prohibit such representations.