The U.S. State Department expressed “disappointment” on Friday that Turkey would revert the 1,500-year-old Hagia Sophia, built as an Eastern Roman – or Byzantine – Christian cathedral, to a mosque by July 24.
The famous Istanbul landmark, a UNESCO World Heritage Site and major tourist destination, has been a secular museum since 1935, when the founder of the modern Turkey, Kemal Ataturk, transformed the building from a Muslim mosque.
“We understand the Turkish Government remains committed to maintaining access to the Hagia Sophia for all visitors, and look forward to hearing its plans for continued stewardship of the Hagia Sophia to ensure it remains accessible without impediment for all,” State Department Spokesperson Morgan Ortagus said in a statement.
The decision to reopen the Church of Hagia Sophia, or Church of Holy Wisdom, as a mosque on July 24 comes after a Turkish court annulled Ataturk’s 1934 decree that turned the building into a museum. It allowed Turkish President Tayyip Erdogan to sign a decree reverting the building to a mosque and fulfill a promise of his 17-year rule.
U.S. Senate Foreign Relations Chairman James Risch, R-Idaho, and ranking member Bob Menendez, D-N.J., harshly criticized the decision.
“We strongly denounce President Erdogan’s decision to convert Hagia Sophia from a museum into a mosque,” the senators said in a joint statement, according to TheHill.com.
“At points in its history, Hagia Sophia served as a place of worship for Muslims and Christians, and for decades has been an extraordinary and welcoming center to people of all faiths.”
They added it was “a deep affront to Christians around the world who look to Hagia Sophia as a shining light and deeply revered holy site.”
Other governments decried the court ruling and Erdogan’s decree.
Greek Prime Minister Kyriakos Mitsotakis condemned the decision “in the most intense manner.”
“This is a choice which offends all those who also recognize the monument as a world heritage site,” Mitsotakis said in a written statement according to the Jerusalem Post. “And, of course, it does not only affect relations between Turkey and Greece, but its relations with the European Union.”
The Hagia Sophia was the seat of the Eastern, or Greek, Orthodox Christian religion until 1204 when it was turned into a Roman Catholic church after the Fourth Crusade. It returned to Eastern Orthodox control in 1261. The structure became a Muslim mosque, with minarets added, when Constantinople was conquered by the Ottoman Empire in 1453 and the city was renamed Istanbul.