Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan on Friday announced that the Hagia Sophia, a UNESCO World Heritage site, would be reopened for Muslim worship as a mosque, sparking fury in the Christian communities, in neighboring Greece and beyond.
Erdogan’s declaration came after a top Turkish court revoked the sixth-century Byzantine monument’s status as a museum, clearing the way for it to be repurposed.
In an address to the nation, Erdogan said the first Muslim prayers at the Hagia Sophia would be performed on July 24.
“God willing, we will perform Friday prayers all together on July 24 and reopen Hagia Sophia to worshiping,” Erdogan said, assuring that it would open its door to all, including non-Muslims.
“Like all our mosques, the doors of Hagia Sophia will be wide open to locals and foreigners, Muslims and non-Muslims,” he said
The Hagia Sophia was constructed as a cathedral in the Christian Byzantine Empire, but was converted into a mosque after the Ottoman conquest of Constantinople in 1453.
The Turkish Council of State, the nation’s highest administrative court, unanimously canceled a 1934 decision to turn it into a museum and said it was registered as a mosque in its property deeds.
The nation’s historic foe Greece swiftly condemned the move by Muslim-majority Turkey.
“Greece condemns most firmly” the decision, said Greek Prime Minister Kyriakos Mitsotakis, adding that it “does not only impact relations between Greece and Turkey, but also the latter’s relations with the EU, UNESCO and the global community as a whole.”
The Russian Orthodox Church was equally scathing.
“The concerns of millions of Christians were not heard,” church spokesman Vladimir Legoida said.
The decision “shows that all pleas regarding the need to handle the situation extremely delicately were ignored,” Legoida added.
UNESCO Director-General Audrey Azoulay said she “deeply regrets” the decision made without prior dialogue with the UN’s cultural agency.
US Department of State spokeswoman Morgan Ortagus said: “We are disappointed by the decision by the government of Turkey to change the status of the Hagia Sophia.”
Meanwhile, Erdogan urged everyone to respect Turkey’s decision and said the issue of what purposes Hagia Sophia would serve “concerns Turkey’s sovereign rights.”
Shortly after the court decision, Erdogan signed a presidential decree handing over the administration of “Hagia Sophia Mosque” to the Turkish Directorate of Religious Affairs.
Erdogan has increasingly emphasized on the battles which resulted in the defeat of the Byzantine Empire by the Ottomans, with lavish celebrations held every year to mark the conquest.
Muslim clerics have occasionally recited prayers in the museum on key anniversaries or religious holidays. In 2018, Erdogan himself recited a verse from the Koran at Hagia Sophia.
“The decision is intended to score points with Erdogan’s pious and nationalist constituents,” Anthony Skinner of the risk assessment firm Verisk Maplecroft said.
After the decision was made public, worshipers performed evening prayers at the Hagia Sophia, while hundreds of people with Turkish flags shouted “Chains broken, Hagia Sophia reopened.”
“It’s been a dream since we were kids. [Hagia Sophia] finds its true purpose again. We are very excited, proud and hopeful that there will be beautiful services here,” Istanbul resident Erdal Gencler said.
The Turkish Council of State on Thursday last week started hearing the case brought by the Association for the Protection of Historic Monuments and the Environment, a religious advocacy group, which promoted Hagia Sophia to be reopened for Muslim prayers.
Since 2005, there have been several attempts to change the building’s status. In 2018, the Constitutional Court rejected one application.
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