ROME – After receiving sharp criticism in recent days for not speaking out about protests in Hong Kong and the recent decision to revert Turkey’s famed Hagia Sophia from a museum into a mosque, Pope Francis Sunday broke his silence on the latter, calling himself “pained” by the decision.

Pointing to the International Day of the Sea, celebrated on the second Sunday of July, Pope Francis said after leading pilgrims in the traditional noontime Angelus prayer , “The sea carries my thoughts farther, to Istanbul. I’m thinking of Santa Sofia … I am very pained.”

His brief comment met with applause from the small crowd gathered in St. Peter’s Square for the occasion.

After months of debate, Turkey’s State Court ruled Friday to revert Istanbul’s Hagia Sophia, one of the most iconic monuments for both Christianity and Islam, to a mosque.

Built under Byzantine Emperor Justinian, the 1,500-year-old structure for centuries was the heart of the Eastern Church, serving as the Byzantine Empire’s main cathedral. It was converted into a mosque following the capture of Constantinople, now called Istanbul, by the Ottoman Empire in 1453.

It was included in the list of UNESCO World Heritage sites in 1985.

It first opened its doors as a museum in 1935, a year after the decision by Turkey’s Council of Ministers was approved by the founder of modern Turkey, Mustafa Kemal Ataturk. Since then, it has served as a symbol of both secularization as well as unity, being open to members of all faiths.

Prior to Sunday, the pope had been criticized among some Orthodox news sites for his “sad silence” on the decision, which was heavily opposed by Orthodox churches around the world, who argued that the monument’s neutrality as a museum served as a point of unity between East and West.

According to the Orthodox Times news agency, the Russian Orthodox Patriarchate said Friday they regret that their concern and that of other Orthodox churches “has not been heard.”

“Unfortunately, this decision is not aimed at pacifying the existing disputes, but, on the contrary, it can lead to even greater divisions,” they said.

Last Sunday Pope Francis came under fire for omitting a portion of text in his Angelus appealing for religious freedom and human rights in Hong Kong. He has yet to speak out about the issue.

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