Baghdad -- The decision by Turkey's Council of State, endorsed by President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan, to turn Saint Sophia in Istanbul from museum back into mosque "is sad and painful" for "all of us and for the whole world," said Card Louis Raphael Sako.
Like Pope Francis, the Chaldean patriarch is critical of the decision by Turkish authorities to change the status of the ancient Christian basilica.
"In the era of the coronavirus, the world needs human solidarity to face the pandemic, not further conflicts and tensions in a region where many people die every day," the cardinal told AsiaNews.
In a weekend message to the country, the Turkish president announced that the first Islamic prayer will be held on 24 July in Saint Sophia mosque, marking the conversion of the original basilica built at the time of Constantine into a Muslim place of worship.
A few hours earlier, Turkey's highest administrative tribunal cancelled the 1934 decree by which Kemal Atatürk, the founder of modern and secular Turkey, disowned by Erdoğan, the modern sultan, had turned the mosque into a museum.
Erdoğan announced that Hagia Sophia (Aya Sofia in Turkish) would keep its historical name and be open to Christian visitors with no entrance fee.
"At the time, Atatürk's decision was courageous," said Patriarch Sako because "after the Armenian genocide it sent a strong signal about living together and safeguarding the common heritage" of Christians and Muslims.
For the Chaldean primate, "it is serious thing that the Turkish president did not show respect for the feelings of two billion Christians in the world, forgetting what they have done for Muslims. Turning a church into Islamic prayer alone is a serious deed."
Saint Sophia is "a symbol of Islamic-Christian coexistence," said Card Sako. "It is the story of a church that became a mosque and then, until now, a museum for everyone.
"This decision goes against interfaith tolerance. It is imperative to seek dialogue to spread tolerance and coexistence between different faiths."
The Chaldean primate also criticised the political leaders of the Christian West who have shown "weakness and failed to speak out."
Such a timorous attitude favours conflicts and violence "in Iraq, Syria, Lebanon and Yemen", where the ideals of peace and justice are increasingly vanishing. This attitude says: "We are weak".
For the prelate, it is also "serious and unbecoming to politicise religion for one's own ends", in view of the fact that Muhammad himself in the pact with Christians agreed that "a church must not be transformed into a mosque".
Erdoğan's decision also raised critical reactions "among Iraqi Muslims" where various "religious and secular" leaders have taken an "opposite position". For the latter, "the time is not ripe," Card Sako said.
"The decision to turn it [the mosque] into a museum, which eventually became a UNESCO heritage site, protected both Christian and Muslim elements, enhancing what must be [considered] a shared heritage."
Pope Francis's "strong moral appeal" yesterday was "reported several times on Iraqi television".
Lastly, the history of a precious heritage must not be cancelled, reversing the "important step taken by Atatürk who showed greater openness and foresight in preserving and enhancing both legacies."