Pope Francis listens to Rahmi Yaran, Mufti of Istanbul (right) during a visit to Hagia Sophia in Istanbul
Pope Francis listens to Rahmi Yaran, Mufti of Istanbul (right) during a visit to Hagia Sophia in IstanbulReuters File

Irked by Pope Francis' statement on the Armenian mass killings, Turkey is planning to convert the historic Hagia Sofia Catheral into a Muslim prayer house, a top Turkish Islamic leader said. 

Turkey had reacted with outrage after Pope Francis called the mass deaths of Armenians under the Ottoman Empire in 1915 a genocide. On Wednesday, the European Parliament also voted in favour of using the term to describe the killings.  

The Mufti of Ankara has now announced that in response to the Pope's statement, the country will convert Hagia Sofia Catheral into a mosque, Hurriyet Daily News reported. 

"Frankly, I believe that the pope's remarks will only accelerate the process for Hagia Sophia to be re-opened for [Muslim] worship," Professor Mefail Hızli, the mufti said in a statement on 15 April.

The historic basilica served as a cathedral for almost a thousand years, till it was conquered by  the Ottoman Empire in 1453. The Greek Patriarchal basilica was then converted into a mosque. However, in 1935 the modern secular Turkish Republic agreed to convert into a museum.

In the past few years, many in Turkey have campaigned for opening the former church for Muslim prayers, despite opposition that it would be disrespectful to Christians.

Recently, on 10 April, hundreds of Muslim worshippers had gathered at the Hagia Sophia, where for the first time in 85 years, a Muslim cleric recited the Quran.

Armenian Genocide

During a Mass at St. Peter's Basilica, Pope Francis said the slaughter of up to 1.5 million Armenians in 1915 constituted "the first genocide of the 20th century." The reference angered Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan, who accused the head of the Catholic church of spouting "nonsense," and warned the pontiff not to make "such a mistake again."

The European Parliament too has now asked Turkey to use the centenary of the massacre – to be commemorated on 24 April – as an opportunity "to recognise the Armenian genocide."

But Erdogan hit out against the EU and accused the bloc of 'religious fanaticism,' Deutsche Welle reported.