Turkey’s President Erdogan has formally converted Hagia Sophia into a mosque and reopened it for for worship as he drums up support for his Islamic-rooted party – sparking fury from Christian groups and the US.
The move came hours after Turkey’s highest administrative court issued a landmark ruling that unanimously annulled the 1934 cabinet decision to renovate the site into a museum.
It meant the green light was given for Erdogan to restore the UNESCO World Heritage site’s previous status as a mosque, and he has since declared it open for Muslim worship.
Within hours he signed a decree handing it over to Turkey’s Religious Affairs Presidency despite widespread international criticism, including from the United States and Orthodox Christian leaders.
Erdogan, a devout Muslim, is scheduled to deliver an address to the nation later today and has frequently used the Hagia Sophia issue, which sits at the heart of Turkey’s religious-secular divide, to garner support for his party.
‘The decision was taken to hand over the management of the Ayasofya Mosque. ..to the Religious Affairs Directorate and open it for worship,’ the decision signed by Erdogan said.
The landmark ruling will inflame tensions not just with the West and Turkey’s historic foe Greece but also Russia, with which Erdogan has forged an increasingly close partnership in recent years.
Hagia Sophia is nearly 1,500 years old and served as one of the most exalted seats of Christian and then Muslim worship in the world.
It means that any change to its status will have a profound impact on followers of both faiths.
Hundreds of people who awaited the court’s ruling outside the building chanted ‘Allah is great!’ and ‘Chains broken, Hagia Sophia reopened!’ when the news was announced.
Greece slammed the decision as an ‘open provocation to the entire civilised world.’
Cypriot Foreign Minister Nikos Christodoulides, a Greek Cypriot, posted on his Twitter account that Cyprus ‘strongly condemns Turkey’s actions on Hagia Sophia in its effort to distract domestic opinion and calls on Turkey to respect its international obligations.’
Christodoulides said Turkey’s ‘escalating, flagrant violation of its international obligations is manifested in its decision to alter the designation of Hagia Sophia, a world heritage site that is a universal symbol of the Orthodox faith.’
Nationalist and conservative groups have long been yearning to hold prayers at Hagia Sophia, which they regard as part of the Muslim Ottoman legacy.
Others believe the UNESCO World Heritage site should remain a museum, as a symbol of Christian and Muslim solidarity.
The group that brought the case to court had contested the legality of the 1934 decision by the modern Turkish republic’s secular government ministers and argued that the building was the personal property of Ottoman Sultan Mehmet II, who conquered Istanbul in 1453.
The court ruled that Hagia Sophia was the property of a foundation managing the Sultan’s assets and was opened up to the public as a mosque.
The Istanbul-based Ecumenical Patriarch Bartholomew I, considered the spiritual leader of the world’s Orthodox Christians, warned in late June that the building’s conversion into a mosque ‘will turn millions of Christians across the world against Islam.’
The Russian Orthodox Church also expressed scathing dismay at Turkey’s decision to revoke the museum status of the iconic Hagia Sophia, accusing it of ignoring millions of Christians.
‘The concern of millions of Christians were not heard,’ Church spokesman Vladimir Legoida told Interfax news agency after a top court revoked the sixth-century Byzantine church building’s status as a museum.
The decision ‘shows that all pleas regarding the need to handle the situation extremely delicately were ignored,’ said Legoida, who heads the Church department that liaises with media.
The Russian Orthodox Church previously urged caution over calls to alter the status of the historic former cathedral, and Russian Patriarch Kirill said he was ‘deeply concerned’ about such a potential move and called it a ‘threat to the whole of Christian civilisation’.
US State Secretary Mike Pompeo said last month that the landmark should remain a museum to serve as bridge between faiths and cultures.
His comments sparked a rebuke from Turkey’s Foreign Ministry, which said Hagia Sophia was a domestic issue of Turkish national sovereignty.
Erdogan has pledged to revert the structure’s status to a mosque several times but said his government would await the court’s decision before taking steps.
Some Islamic prayers have been held in the museum in recent years and in a major symbolic move, Erdogan recited the opening verse of the Quran in the Hagia Sophia in 2018.
Built under Byzantine Emperor Justinian, Hagia Sophia was the main seat of the Eastern Orthodox church for centuries, where emperors were crowned amidst ornate marble and mosaic decorations.
Four minarets were added to the terracotta-hued structure with cascading domes and the building was turned into an imperial mosque following the 1453 Ottoman conquest of Constantinople – the city that is now Istanbul.
The building opened its doors as a museum in 1935, a year after the Council of Ministers’ decision.
Mosaics depicting Jesus, Mary and Christian saints that were plastered over in line with Islamic rules were uncovered through arduous restoration work for the museum.
Hagia Sophia was the most popular museum in Turkey last year, drawing more than 3.7 million visitors.
News reports have said the conversion could occur in time for prayers on July 15, when Turkey marks the quashing of a coup attempt in 2016.
A poll conducted in June by Istanbul Economy Research showed 46.9 percent of respondents favored Hagia Sophia being opened to Muslim worship while 38.8 percent said it should remain a museum.
Thirteen percent said it should be open to worship for all religions.
SOURCE: Daily Mail, Alice Cachia; The Associated Press