Kremlin hopes Ankara will maintain Hagia Sophia’s neutral status as a World Heritage site

Kremlin spokesman Dmitry Peskov has said he hopes the Turkish authorities will maintain the status of the Hagia Sophia as a museum recognised as a UNESCO World Heritage site.

"I hope for the prudence of the Turkish government,’’ Russian news agency Regnum cited Peskov as saying. “Of course, we hope that the status of Hagia Sophia as a World Heritage Site will be taken into account.”

Peskov’s remarks arrive amid an ongoing debate on the status of the 6th century former Greek Orthodox Christian patriarchal cathedral.

The structure was transformed into a mosque following the conquest of Istanbul by the Ottoman Empire in 1453 and later designated a museum in 1935. A top Turkish court last week heard a case aimed at converting the building back into a mosque and will announce its verdict later this month.

On Monday, the highest priest of the Russian Orthodox Church, Kirill, issued a statement urging the Turkish authorities to keep the Hagia Sophia in Istanbul as a museum.

"I hope for the prudence of the Turkish government. Maintaining the current neutral status of Hagia Sophia, one of the greatest masterpieces of Christian culture, an iconic temple for millions of Christians around the world, will further develop relations between the peoples of Russia and Turkey and strengthen inter-religious peace and harmony," Patriarch Kirill was cited as saying by Interfax.

Kirill stressed the importance of the Hagia Sophia to those of the Orthodox Christian faith and the entire Russian Orthodox Church.

“The ambassadors of Grand Vladimir, having crossed the threshold of this temple, were captivated by its heavenly beauty,” the Patriarch said.

“The threat to Hagia Sophia is a threat to the entire Christian civilization, and therefore to our spirituality and history. To this day, for every Russian Orthodox person, Hagia Sophia is a great Christian shrine. The duty of each civilized state is to maintain balance, reconcile contradictions in society, rather than exacerbate them and promote the unification, not separation, of people,” the patriarch said.

Recalling the dynamic ties between Turkey and Russia, Kirill said the Russian people could respond "with deep pain,” to an unfavourable outcome for the structure.

On July 6, Russian Orthodox Church Bishop Hilarion Alfeyev also opposed changing the status of Hagia Sophia.

"Any attempts to change the status of the Hagia Sophia, which is now a museum, will lead to a change and violation of the fragile inter-faith and inter-religious balances," Hilarion said in a talk with Russia-24 TV channel.

Russian Deputy Foreign Minister Sergei Vershinin also called on Turkish authorities to take into account the global significance of Hagia Sophia.

"We do not hide our position. We truly believe that we are talking about the decisions that are being taken by the Turkish side, we expect that the global significance of this object will be taken into account," Vershinin told reporters.

Changing the status of Hagia Sophia from a museum to a mosque is similar to an attempt by the Turkish authorities to take the world back to the Middle Ages, Konstantin Zatulin, first deputy chairman of the committee of the State Duma for the Commonwealth of Independent States, said.

President Erdoğan said last week that criticism over the possible conversion of the monument - known in Turkish as Ayasofya - was an attack on Turkey’s sovereignty.

Many Turks maintain that a mosque status for the structure would better reflect the identity of country, home to an overwhelmingly Muslim population.

A recent poll that found 73 percent of Turks favour such a transformation.

Many Christians, on the other hand, were comfortable with Hagia Sophia’s status as a museum because this effectively created a neutral space, which respected both the Christian and Muslim heritage of the ancient building.