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Pope Francis 'very distressed' over Hagia Sophia

Turkey will cover Hagia Sophia mosaics during prayers- ruling party spokesman

Hagia Sophia has always been a mosque in my conscious, Istanbul's mayor has said, who has been criticized for having remained silent after the conversion of the historical structure to a mosque, adding that he supports the move as long as the country benefits from it.

Since Friday's landmark decision to return Hagia Sophia into a mosque, President Recep Tayyip Erdogan confirmed the mosque will be open for prayers starting on Friday 24 July but will continue to be accessible for all visitors.

It was the Vatican's first reaction to Turkey's decision to transform the Byzantine-era monument back into a mosque, a move that has drawn criticism from around the world.

As the objective of the site was made for the objective of worshipping God, the statement continues, "this divine goal was resumed uninterruptedly since the conquest of Istanbul in 1453", when the prophecy of the fall of Constantinople (former name of Istanbul) was fulfilled by Sultan Mehmet II the Conqueror.

The World Council of Churches released an open letter calling for Erdogan to reverse his decision.

Pope Francis says he is "deeply pained" over the decision by Turkey to change the status of Hagia Sophia - which was originally built in Istanbul as a Christian cathedral - from a museum to a mosque.

"I think of Hagia Sophia and I am very saddened", Pope Francis said towards the end of his midday sermon in Saint Peter's Square.

Bishop Hilarion, who heads the Russian Orthodox Church's department for external church relations, described it as "a blow to global Christianity".

Greece condemned the decision on Friday, saying it would have repercussions on relations between the two countries and on Turkey's ties with the European Union.

The transformation of the Hagia Sophia dominated the headlines in Greek newspapers this weekend.

Jordanian political analyst Amer Al-Tal agreed with Salha and said Erdogan uses "religion as a cover" to implement his policies in Turkey.

Erdogan's announcement came after a top court cancelled a 1934 cabinet decision under modern Turkey's secularising founder Mustafa Kemal Ataturk to preserve the church-turned-mosque as a museum.

Mr Erdogan said in a national address: "With this court ruling, and with the measures we took in line with the decision, Hagia Sophia became a mosque again, after 86 years, in the way Fatih the conqueror of Istanbul had wanted it to be".