A Turkish court has revoked the Byzantine-era Hagia Sophia's museum status, with President Recep Tayyip Erdogan immediately signing a decree to open it to Muslim worshipers. The ancient building was once a cathedral.
The Hagia Sophia would be reopened to worshipers after a gap of over 80 years, Turkey’s President Recep Tayyip Erdogan said on Friday.
Erdogan called on citizens to avoid visiting the historic site for prayers before the building reopens as a mosque on July 24. He also called upon "observers" to respect the official decision.
In an emotionally charged speech, Erdogan said that it would take up to six months to finish preparations to make Hagia Sophia more "compatible" with Islamic prayers.
The strongman leader added that the former museum would still be available for visitors of all faiths, without disclosing further details. Some local media outlets had recently suggested drawing a curtain to hide the Christian symbols at the site.
First call to prayer
Earlier on Friday, a top Turkish court ruled the 1934 conversion of the Hagia Sophia into a museum to be unlawful. After the announcement, the social media handles of the Hagia Sophia were taken down, and the first call to prayer was recited at the site and broadcast on all main news channels in Turkey. The Byzantine-era building, which is protected by the UNESCO, was originally built as a cathedral.
The decision was in line with the Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan’s calls to turn the site into a mosque despite international criticism. The United States and Orthodox Christian leaders are among those that have not approved of the decision.
Soon after the ruling, Erdogan signed a decree to open the Hagia Sophia as a mosque.
"The decision was taken to hand over the management of the Ayasofya Mosque ... to the Direcorate of Religious Affairs and open it for worship," the decision signed by Erdogan said.
Diyanet [or the Directorate of Religious Affairs] is the Turkish government's controversial and profitable religious authority, which is also highly active in exporting Turkish imams to mosques abroad, not least in Germany.
UNESCO reconsidering status
The UNESCO organization, which designates World Heritage Sites, said it would be reviewing the building’s status in light of the decision. UNESCO chief Audrey Azoulay wrote in a statement that UNESCO "deeply regrets the decision of the Turkish authorities, taken without prior dialogue, to modify the status of the Hagia Sophia."
The organization urged Turkey "to avoid a step back from the universal value of this exceptional heritage."
The Hagia Sophia was designated a World Heritage Site in 1985.
Peter Stano, spokesman for the external affairs of the European Union, called the decision “regrettable” in a tweet. He mentioned Turkey was a founding member of the United Nations Alliance of Civilizations, which is "committed to promote inter-religious, inter-cultural dialogue, fostering tolerance & co-existence."
Orthodox Church, Greece, Cyprus aghast
The Russian Orthodox Church was not pleased with the decision. A church spokesman said "the concern of millions of Christians has not been heard,"” and "today's court ruling shows that all calls for the need for extreme delicacy in this matter were ignored," in statements run by Russian news agency Interfax.
Cyprus' minister of foreign affairs, Nikos Christodoulides, said he "strongly condemns Turkey’s actions on Hagio Sophia in its effort to distract domestic opinion and calls on Turkey to respect its international obligations."
Greece's Culture Minister Lina Mendoni decried the Hagia Sophia's new status in a written statement: "Today’s decision, which came as a result of the political will of President Erdogan, is an open provocation to the civilized world which recognizes the unique value and ecumenical nature of the monument."
Turkey condemned what it called foreign interference. "This is a matter of national sovereignty," said Turkish Foreign Minister Mevlut Cavusoglu. "What is important is what the Turkish people want."
Museum designation a legacy of Ataturk
The Hagia Sophia was completed in 537 AD by Byzantine emperor Justinian. It was the center of Orthodox Christianity and was the world's largest church for centuries. It was captured by Ottoman Sultan, Mehmet the Conqueror in the 15th century and became a mosque.
In 1934, Turkey's first president, Mustafa Kemal Ataturk, converted the mosque into a museum. It was a symbol that Turkey had become a secular country after the fall of the Ottoman Empire. It has become Turkey’s most popular tourist attraction, drawing millions of visitors from around the world every year.
kbd/msh (dpa, Reuters, AFP)