Turkey turns Hagia Sophia back into a mosque

ISTANBUL (AFP) – Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan announced on Friday that the Hagia Sophia, one of the architectural wonders of the world, would be reopened for Muslim worship as a mosque.

His 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 turned back into a mosque.

In an address to the nation, Erdogan said the first Muslim prayers at the Hagia Sophia would be performed on July 24.

“We will perform Friday prayers all together on July 24 and re-open Hagia Sophia to worshipping,” he 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.”

People pray outside the Hagia Sophia museum in Istanbul. PHOTO: AFP

The UNESCO World Heritage site in historic Istanbul, a magnet for tourists worldwide, was first constructed as a cathedral in the Byzantine Empire but was converted into a mosque after the Ottoman conquest of Constantinople in 1453.

Last year, 3.8 million tourists visited the monument.

The Council of State, Turkey’s highest administrative court, unanimously cancelled a 1934 Cabinet decision to turn it into a museum and said Hagia Sophia was registered as a mosque in its property deeds.

UNESCO Chief Audrey Azoulay said she “deeply regrets” the decision made without prior dialogue with the United Nation’s (UN )cultural agency.

United States (US) State Department spokeswoman Morgan Ortagus stated that “we are disappointed by the decision by the government of Turkey to change the status of the Hagia Sophia.”

The move was also condemned by the US Commission on International Religious Freedom as an “unequivocal politicisation” of the monument.

Erdogan urged everyone to respect Turkey’s decision and said the issue of what purposes Hagia Sophia would serve “concerns Turkey’s sovereign rights.”

Hagia Sophia, which stands opposite the impressive Sultanahmet Mosque – often called the Blue Mosque – has been a museum since 1935.