ISTANBUL (Reuters) – President Tayyip Erdogan declared Hagia Sophia of Istanbul a mosque on Friday with the first Muslim prayers to begin in two weeks, after a higher court ruled that the former building’s conversion to a museum by the founding statesman Turkey was illegal.
A woman gestures in front of the Hagia Sophia or Ayasofya church, after a court decision paving the way to convert her from a museum to a mosque, in Istanbul, Turkey, on July 10, 2020. REUTERS / Murad Sezer
Erdogan spoke Friday a few hours after the court ruling was issued, brushing aside international warnings not to change the status of the nearly 1,500-year-old monument that is revered by Christians and Muslims alike.
The United States, Russia and church leaders were among those expressing concern about changing the status of the UNESCO World Heritage site, a focal point of the Byzantine Christian and Ottoman Muslim empires and now one of the most visited monuments in Turkey.
Greece’s culture ministry described the court’s decision as an “open provocation” to the civilized world, while UNESCO said it regretted not having been notified in advance and would now review the condition of the building.
Erdogan has tried to shift Islam to the mainstream of Turkish politics in his 17 years at the helm. It has long floated restoring the state of the 6th century building mosque, which became a museum in the early days of the modern Turkish secular state under Mustafa Kemal Ataturk.
“With this court ruling, and with the measures we took in line with the decision, Hagia Sophia became a mosque again, after 86 years, in the way that Fatih, the conqueror of Istanbul, wanted it to be” Erdogan said in a national speech. .
In an account of history that sometimes criticizes the Byzantine Empire and the founders of the modern republic, Erdogan said that Turkey could now leave behind “the curse of Allah, the gains and the angels” that Fatih, the Ottoman Sultan Mehmet II, He said it would be about anyone who converted him from a mosque.
“Like all our mosques, the doors of Hagia Sophia will be open to everyone, local and foreign, Muslim and non-Muslim,” said Erdogan, who closed the session on Friday at the Directorate of Religious Affairs that runs the site.
The US State Department, which had urged Turkey to keep the building as a museum, said in a statement that it was “disappointed” by the decision, but looked forward to hearing the plans “to ensure that it remains accessible without impediment to all.” .
The association that filed the court case, the latest in a 16-year legal battle, said Hagia Sophia was owned by Sultan Mehmet II, who captured the city in 1453 and turned the 900-year-old Greek Orthodox cathedral into a mosque.
The Ottomans built minarets next to the vast vaulted structure, while inside they added panels with the Arab names of God, the Prophet Muhammad and the Muslim caliphs. Golden mosaics and Christian icons, obscured by the Ottomans, were rediscovered when Hagia Sophia became a museum.
In its ruling, the State Council, Turkey’s main administrative court, said: “It was concluded that the writing of the agreement assigned it as a mosque and its use outside this character is not legally possible.
“The cabinet decision in 1934 that … defined it as a museum did not comply with laws,” he said, referring to an edict signed by Ataturk.
Erdogan, a pious Muslim, supported his weight in the campaign ahead of last year’s local elections, which dealt a severe blow to his ruling AK Party, rooted in Islam. Members rose and applauded in parliament on Friday when their decree was read.
In Istanbul, hundreds of people gathered near Hagia Sophia to celebrate the ruling. “Those who built this also did it to worship God,” said Osman Sarihan, a teacher.
“Thank God today he returned to his main purpose. Today God will be worshiped in this mosque. ”
ATATURK SEXY STEP
Reversing one of Ataturk’s most symbolic steps, which underscored the former leader’s commitment to a secular republic, Erdogan has closed his own project to restore Islam in public life, said Soner Cagaptay, director of the Turkish Research Program at the Washington Institute for the Near East Policy.
“Hagia Sophia is the highlight of Erdogan’s religious revolution that has been going on in Turkey for more than a decade,” he said, noting a greater emphasis on religion in education and across the government.
The Russian Orthodox Church said it regretted that the court did not consider their concerns and said the decision could lead to even greater divisions, the TASS news agency reported.
Earlier, Ecumenical Patriarch Bartholomew, the spiritual leader of some 300 million Orthodox Christians worldwide and based in Istanbul, said turning it into a mosque would disappoint Christians and “fracture” the East and West.
Turkish groups have long campaigned for the conversion of Hagia Sophia, saying it would better reflect Turkey’s status as an overwhelmingly Muslim country.
Additional reports by Mehmet Emin Caliskan and Daphne Psaledakis in Washington; Edition of Dominic Evans, Jonathan Spicer, Gareth Jones and Daniel Wallis