U.S. urges Turkey to let Hagia Sophia remain a museum

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WASHINGTON (Reuters) - U.S. Secretary of State Mike Pompeo on Wednesday urged Turkey to let Istanbul’s former Byzantine cathedral of Hagia Sophia remain a museum, a day before a court ruling that may pave the way for requests to turn it back into a mosque.

Hagia Sophia, a UNESCO World Heritage Site that was at the heart of both the Christian Byzantine and Muslim Ottoman empires, is one of Turkey’s most visited monuments.

Finished in the year 537 with futuristic building techniques in what was then Constantinople, it was the main cathedral in Christendom - and the world’s largest - for 900 years before becoming an Ottoman mosque in 1453.

It was converted into a museum in 1934 under the secular founder of the modern Turkish republic, Kemal Ataturk, but the case before the court challenges the legality of this step. President Tayyip Erdogan, a pious Muslim, has proposed making Hagia Sophia, called Ayasofya in Turkish, into a mosque again.

In a statement, Pompeo praised the Turkish government for maintaining the building “in an outstanding manner” as a museum, but said a change in its status would diminish its legacy.

“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,” Pompeo said.

The deputy chairman of Erdogan’s AK Party, Numan Kurtulmus, promptly retorted that the issue was a matter of national sovereignty:

“The sole decision-making authority about the status of Hagia Sophia ... belongs to Turkey. We do not need anyone’s advice or recommendation on our own affairs.”

Reporting by Humeyra Pamuk; additional reporting by Ezgi Erkoyun in Istanbul; Editing by Dan Grebler and Kevin Liffey