“The sea takes my thoughts a little bit to Istanbul,” said the Pope during a prayer commemorating the people who work at sea.
Since a ministerial decree in 1934, the iconic building in Istanbul has served as a museum, but on Friday, Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan issued a presidential decree moving the building’s administration from the Ministry of Culture to the Presidency of Religious Affairs.
The order comes after a previous Turkish court ruling overturned the decades-old government decree.
“Hagia Sophia is an architectural masterpiece and a unique testament to the interactions between Europe and Asia over the centuries,” said Director-General Audrey Azoulay.
“Its status as a museum reflects the universal nature of its heritage, and makes it a powerful symbol of dialogue.”
Greece and France also questioned Turkey’s secularism.
The history of the iconic building extends to the Byzantine Empire in the sixth century, when it was built as a cathedral. In the fifteenth century, it became a mosque.
Since Islam prohibits displaying pictures of people in mosques, Turkish religious affairs chief Ali Erbash said on Sunday on Turkish television, officials plan to use lights and curtains to cover many of the Byzantine Christian mosaics in Hagia Sophia.
“Like all of our mosques, its doors will be open to everyone – Muslim or non-Muslim,” Erdogan said.
“As the common world heritage, Hagia Sophia will continue, in its new way, to embrace everyone in a more sincere way.”
Sherif Paget, CNN, Mourad Baykara, Ezel Sarius, Livia Borges, Zahid Mahmoud contributed to this report.