ANKARA, Turkey – The president of Turkey on Friday formally converted Istanbul’s sixth-century Hagia Sophia back into a mosque and declared it open for Muslim worship, hours after a high court annulled a 1934 decision that had made the religious landmark a museum.
The decision sparked deep dismay among Orthodox Christians. Originally a cathedral, Hagia Sophia was turned into a mosque after Istanbul’s conquest by the Ottoman Empire but had been a museum for the last 86 years, drawing millions of tourists annually.
There was jubilation outside the terra cotta-hued structure with its cascading domes and four minarets. Dozens of people awaiting the court’s ruling chanted “Allah is great!” when the news broke. A large crowd later prayed outside it.
In the capital of Ankara, legislators stood and applauded as the decision was read in Parliament.
Turkey’s high administrative court threw its weight behind a petition brought by a religious group and annulled the 1934 Cabinet decision that turned the site into a museum. Within hours, President Recep Tayyip Erdogan signed a decree handing over Hagia Sophia to Turkey’s Religious Affairs Presidency.
In a televised address to the nation, Erdogan said the first prayers inside Hagia Sofia would be held on July 24, and he urged respect for the decision.
“I underline that we will open Hagia Sophia to worship as a mosque by preserving its character of humanity’s common cultural heritage,” he said, adding: “It is Turkey’s sovereign right to decide for which purpose Hagia Sofia will be used.”
He rejected the idea that the decision ends Hagia Sophia’s status as a structure that brings faiths together.
“Like all of our other mosques, the doors of Hagia Sophia will be open to all, locals or foreigners, Muslims and nonMuslims,” Erdogan said.
Erdogan had spoken in favor of turning the hugely symbolic UNESCO World Heritage site back into a mosque despite widespread international criticism, including from U.S. and Orthodox Christian leaders, who had urged Turkey to keep its status as a museum symbolizing solidarity among faiths and cultures.
The move threatens to deepen tensions with neighboring Greece, whose prime minister, Kyriakos Mitsotakis, condemned the decision as an affront to Hagia Sophia’s ecumenical character.
“It is a decision that offends all those who recognize Hagia Sophia as an indispensable part of world cultural heritage” Mitsotakis said. “This decision clearly affects not only Turkey’s relations with Greece but also its relations with the European Union, UNESCO and the world community as a whole.”
In Greece’s second-largest city, Thessaloniki, protesters gathered outside a church that is modeled on Hagia Sophia and bears the same name. They chanted, “We’ll light candles in Hagia Sophia!” and held Greek flags and Byzantine banners.
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,” tweeted Foreign Minister Nikos Christodoulides.
Vladimir Dzhabarov, deputy head of the foreign affairs committee in the Russian upper house of parliament, called the action “a mistake.”
“Turning it into a mosque will not do anything for the Muslim world. It does not bring nations together, but on the contrary brings them into collision,” he said.
The debate hits at the heart of Turkey’s religious-secular divide. Nationalist and conservative groups in Turkey have long yearned to hold prayers at Hagia Sophia, which they regard as part of the Muslim Ottoman legacy. Others believe it should remain a museum, as a symbol of Christian and Muslim solidarity.
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