A Turkish court on Thursday heard a case aimed at converting the Hagia Sophia museum in Istanbul back into a mosque and will announce its verdict within 15 days, a lawyer said, on an issue which has drawn global expressions of concern.
The 6th-century building is now at the center of a heated debate between nationalist, conservative and religious groups who are pressing for it to be reconverted back into a mosque and those who believe the Unesco World Heritage site should remain a museum, underscoring Istanbul's status as a bridge between continents and cultures.
ATHENS (Reuters) - Greece said on Thursday Turkey risked opening up "a huge emotional chasm" with Christian countries if it pressed ahead with a proposal to convert the Hagia Sophia museum in Istanbul into a mosque.
The court case disputes the legality of a decision in 1934, in the early days of the modern secular Turkish state under Mustafa Kemal Ataturk, to convert the huge sixth-century building - known in Turkish as Ayasofya - from a mosque into a museum.
President Tayyip Erdogan, a pious Muslim, has lent his support to turning Hagia Sophia, called Ayasofya in Turkish, back into a mosque.
Islamist groups, however, strongly object to its status as a museum.
The matter of Hagia Sophia's status came up when Turkey marked the 567th anniversary of the conquest on May 29 by reading passages from the Muslim holy book, the Quran, in the Hagia Sophia.
In a statement, Foreign Ministry spokesman Hami Aksoy said: "We are shocked at the statement made by the U.S. State Department on Hagia Sophia".
Hagia Sophia was the main cathedral in Christendom for 900 years before becoming a mosque for 500 years until 1934, when it was converted into a museum.
The secretary's warning comes after United States envoy for religious freedom Sam Brownback called on Turkey last week to maintain the Hagia Sophia as a UNESCO World Heritage site. That status would be similar to Istanbul's Blue Mosque, which sits right across from Hagia Sophia and functions both as a house of worship and a tourist spot.