Yesterday, the second Sunday in July, the International Day of the Sea is traditionally observed, and Pope Francis mentioned this after the Marian prayer, extending “an affectionate greeting to all those who work at sea, especially those who are far from their loved ones and their country.”

Then, speaking somewhat hesitatingly in obviously pained extemporaneous remarks, he said: “And the sea carries me a little farther away in my thoughts: to Istanbul. I think of Saint Sophia, and I am very saddened.”

Ten little words: “I think of Saint Sophia, and I am very saddened.”

The Pope did not mention Turkey’s president by name or use the word ‘mosque’ but he was referring to President Erdogan’s announcement on July10 that the museum commonly known as Hagia Sophia would turn back into a mosque, following a ruling from the Council of State.

Hagia Sophia was built 1500 years ago – in 537 – as a basilica by the Byzantine Christian Emperor Justinian and dedicated to Divine Wisdom – thus Hagia Sophia, its name in Greek. It is Aya Sofia to Turks.

After the Ottoman conquest of Constantinople in 1453, the basilica was turned into a mosque and Constantinople became Istanbul. In 1934, Mustafa Kemal Ataturk, the founding father of the Republic of Turkey, turned Hagia Sophia into a museum, which later became a UNESCO world heritage site.

Hagia Sophia is set to re-open to Muslims for prayer on July 24.

I have visited this magnificent church – I can’t help but call it a church! – on several occasions, the first being in 1996 as a member of the Holy See delegation to a UN conference on Housing in Istanbul.   We also visited the celebrated Blue Mosque, revered by Turks, most of whom are Muslim. (See my piece below about Pope Benedict’s visit to Istanbul and to Hagia Sophia and the Blue Mosque in 2006)

Reactions around the world to Friday’s decision ranged from disappointment to condemnation, and people immediately looked to the Vatican for a statement. So far all that has been heard from the Vatican were Pope Francis’ heartfelt ten words at the Angelus.

Negative reaction poured in from Orthodox leaders, the European Union and the World Council of Churches, to name a few.   According to Peter Anderson who specializes in news about the Orthodox Church, Ecumenical Patriarch Bartholomew I of Constantinople lamented the decision, saying Hagia Sophia belongs not only to those who own it at the moment but to all humanity. “The Turkish people have the great responsibility and honour to make the universality of this wonderful monument shine. … (as a museum it serves as a) “symbolic place of encounter, dialogue, solidarity and mutual understanding between Christianity and Islam.”

Anderson noted that Bartholomew, the spiritual leader of 300 million Orthodox Christians, further warned conversation would “push millions of Christians around the world against Islam.”

For its part, UNESCO said that the building is inscribed on its world heritage list as a museum, which binds the Turkish state to ensure that “no modification is made to the outstanding universal value of the property.”

In Athens, reports Anderson in a summary of worldwide reaction to Erdogan’s decision, the Greek Prime Minister said the conversion would be an affront to its ecumenical character. “Furthermore, it is a decision that offends all those who recognize Hagia Sophia as an indispensable part of world cultural heritage. …This decision clearly affects not only Turkey’s relations with Greece, but also its relations with the European Union, UNESCO, and the world community as a whole. It is a truly regretful development that the Turkish leadership, after working for the Alliance of Civilizations in 2005, has now taken the decision to reverse course.”

The WCC told Turkey’s president in a letter of “the grief and dismay of the World Council of Churches and of its 350 member churches in more than 110 countries, representing more than half a billion Christians around the world at the step you have just taken. 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.”


In 2006, I spent six days in Turkey to cover Pope Benedict’s brief visit November 28 to December 1.
Benedict spoke of his trip, that included stops in Ankara, Izmir, Ephesus and Istanbul at the Angelus the Sunday before his Wednesday departure, saying, “It is with great emotion that I await my meeting with the small Catholic community, always present in my heart, and to fraternally join the Orthodox Church on the occasion of the feast of the Apostle St. Andrew.”

He said he was “walking in the footsteps of my venerated predecessors Pope Paul VI and John Paul II,” who visited Turkey in 1967 and 1979 respectively. He invoked the “heavenly protection of Blessed John XXIII, who for 10 years was apostolic delegate in Turkey and felt great esteem and affection for that nation.”

“I ask you all,” Benedict told the faithful, “to accompany me in prayer so that this pilgrimage bears the fruit that God wishes.”

Thursday, November 30, the feast of St. Andrew, patron of the Ecumenical Patriarchate, was the busiest day on the Pope’s schedule for his visit to Turkey. It included a liturgy with Ecumenical Patriarch Bartholomew I, the signing of a Joint Declaration by Pope and Patriarch, a visit to Aya Sofya (Hagia Sophia) Museum, a history-making visit to the famed Blue Mosque, and meetings with other Christian leaders and the chief rabbi of Turkey.

I spent some time today re-reading my posts of that papal visit. I was actually riveted by those memories, and one of the funniest columns I’ve ever written was probably the one about the driver I hired to take me from the Izmir airport to Ephesus for the papal Mass at Mary’s House!

I took these photos at Mary’s House in Ephesus during Benedict’s Mass:

On a serious side, here is what I wrote about Pope Benedict’s visit to the Blue Mosque:

In what was considered one of the most sensitive parts of his trip, Pope Benedict Thursday afternoon (Nov 30) visited both the Aya Sofya and the Blue Mosque, so called for the blue tiles that decorate its domed ceiling.

Though it never came to pass, many Muslims feared the Pope would make some kind of religious gesture inside Aya Sofya Museum, also known as Hagia Sophia or “Holy Wisdom,” once an Orthodox church that was converted into a mosque in 1453 by the Turks, and into a museum in 1934. Universally acknowledged as one of the greatest buildings of the world, its conquest by the Ottomans at the fall of Constantinople is considered one of the great tragedies of Christianity by the Greek Orthodox faithful. For Muslims it is still a sacred site.

Then, in one of the most awaited moments of his trip, and in the holiest site for Turkish Muslims, the Pope visited the Blue Mosque for a half hour, a time he obviously enjoyed, asking questions and making comments as he did at Aya Sofya.

He removed his shoes as is customary in a mosque and was guided throughout by the Grand Mufti and imam who at one point asked Benedict to join in a moment of meditation. Both remained in solemn silence for a brief period, with the Pope meditating for a full two minutes. The Pope told the imam “this visit will help us together to find the ways, the paths to peace for the good of mankind.”

I took these pictures from the TV at the media center – only a handful of journalists were allowed in the mosque:

At one point the imam showed the Pope a Muslim prayer book and noted that all prayers begin with the word Allah, the name for God. The Pope then put his hand on the book and said “let us pray for brotherhood and all mankind.” There was an exchange of gifts at the end and when the imam handed the Pope a framed ceramic tile depicting a dove, the Pope said, “this picture is a message of fraternity as a remembrance of a visit I will surely never forget.”

PS. For Turks, this was the highest moment, the most important and memorable of Benedict’s four-day visit to their country.