Erdogan declares Hagia Sophia a mosque after Turkish court ruling

An aerial view of the Byzantine-era Hagia Sophia, one of Istanbul's main tourist attractions in the historic Sultanahmet district of Istanbul. Picture: AP Photo

An aerial view of the Byzantine-era Hagia Sophia, one of Istanbul's main tourist attractions in the historic Sultanahmet district of Istanbul. Picture: AP Photo

Published Jul 10, 2020


ISTANBUL- President Tayyip Erdogan

declared Istanbul's Hagia Sophia open to Muslim prayer as a

mosque on Friday after a top court ruled that the ancient

building's conversion to a museum by modern Turkey's founding

statesman was illegal.

Erdogan made his announcement just an hour after the court

ruling was published, 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 to express concern about changing the status of the UNESCO

World Heritage Site, a focal point of both the Christian

Byzantine and Muslim Ottoman empires and now one of the most

visited monuments in Turkey.

Greece's culture ministry described the court decision as an

"open provocation" to the civilized world.

Erdogan has sought to shift Islam into the mainstream of

Turkish politics in his 17 years at the helm. He has long

proposed restoring the mosque status of the sixth-century

building, which was converted into a museum in the early days of

the modern secular Turkish state under Mustafa Kemal Ataturk.

"The decision was taken to hand over the management of the

Ayasofya Mosque. the Religious Affairs Directorate and open

it for worship," the decision signed by Erdogan said.

The Council of State, Turkey's top administrative court,

said in its ruling: "It was concluded that the settlement deed

allocated it as a mosque and its use outside this character is

not possible legally.

"The cabinet decision in 1934 that ended its use as a mosque

and defined it as a museum did not comply with laws," it said,

referring to an edict signed by Ataturk.


The association which brought the court case, the latest in

a 16-year legal battle, said Hagia Sophia was the property of

the Ottoman leader who captured the city in 1453 and turned the

already 900-year-old Greek Orthodox cathedral into a mosque.

The Ottomans built minarets alongside the vast domed

structure, while inside they added panels bearing the Arabic

names of God, the Prophet Mohammad, and Muslim caliphs. The

golden mosaics and Christian icons, obscured by the Ottomans,

were uncovered again when Hagia Sophia became a museum.

Erdogan, a pious Muslim, threw his weight behind the

campaign before local elections last year which dealt a painful

blow to his ruling Islamist-rooted AK Party. He was due to speak

shortly before 9 p.m. (1800 GMT).

Hundreds of people gathered near Hagia Sophia celebrating

the ruling. "Those who built this did it to worship God as

well," said Osman Sarihan, a teacher.

"Thank God today it reverted to its main purpose. Today God

will be worshipped in this mosque."

In parliament in Ankara, AK Party members stood and

applauded after Erdogan's decree was read aloud.

By reversing one of Ataturk's most symbolic steps, which

underlined the former leader's commitment to a secular republic,

Erdogan has capped his own project to restore Islam in public

life, said Soner Cagaptay, director of the Turkish Research

Program at the Washington Institute for Near East Policy.

"Hagia Sophia is the crowning moment of Erdogan's religious

revolution which has been unfolding in Turkey for over a

decade," he said, pointing to greater emphasis on religion in

education and across government.

The Russian Orthodox Church said it regretted that the court

did not take its concerns into account when making its ruling

and said the decision could lead to even greater divisions, the

TASS news agency reported. UNESCO also expressed regret at the


Previously, Ecumenical Patriarch Bartholomew, the spiritual

head of some 300 million Orthodox Christians worldwide and based

in Istanbul, said converting it into a mosque would disappoint

Christians and would "fracture" East and West.

U.S. Secretary of State Mike Pompeo had also urged Turkey to

maintain the building as a museum.

But Turkish groups have long campaigned for Hagia Sophia's

conversion, saying it would better reflect Turkey's status as an

overwhelmingly Muslim country.


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