Erdogan Signs Order to Turn Hagia Sophia Back Into a Mosque Despite International Warnings

Court annuls a 1934 government decree turning the nearly 1,500-year-old structure into a museum

Reuters
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A woman wrapped in a Turkish national flag gestures outside the Hagia Sophia museum in Istanbul, Turkey, July 10, 2020.
A woman wrapped in a Turkish national flag gestures outside the Hagia Sophia museum in Istanbul, Turkey, July 10, 2020.Credit: AFP
Reuters

President Recep Tayyip Erdogan signed a decree opening Istanbul's Hagia Sophia for worship as a mosque Friday, after a Turkish court annulled a 1934 government decree turning it into a museum, despite international warnings against such a move.

Erdogan shared on his Twitter feed a copy of the decree he had signed which said the decision had been taken to hand control of the Ayasofya Mosque, as it is known in Turkish, to the country's religious directorate and reopen it for worship.

Erdogan had proposed restoring the mosque 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.

The United States, Greece and church leaders were among those to express concern about changing the status of the huge 6th century building, converted into a museum in the early days of the modern secular Turkish state under Mustafa Kemal Ataturk.

An aerial view of the Byzantine-era monument of Hagia Sophia, Istanbul, Turkey, April 24, 2020. Picture taken with a drone.
An aerial view of the Byzantine-era monument of Hagia Sophia, Istanbul, Turkey, April 24, 2020. Picture taken with a drone. Credit: REUTERS/Umit Bektas

"It was concluded that the settlement deed allocated it as a mosque and its use outside this character is not possible legally," the Council of State, Turkey's top administrative court, said in a ruling.

"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.

Greece's culture ministry called the decision an 'open provocation' to the civilized world.

"Today's decision, which came as a result of the political will of President (Tayyip) Erdogan, is an open provocation to the civilized world which recognizes the unique value and ecumenical nature of the monument," Culture Minister Lina Mendoni said in a written statement.

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 Byzantine church into a mosque.

The Ottomans built minarets alongside the vast domed structure, while inside they added huge calligraphic panels bearing the Arabic names of the early Muslim caliphs alongside the monument's ancient Christian iconography.

Erdogan, a pious Muslim, threw his weight behind the campaign to convert the building before local elections last year. He is due to speak shortly before 9 p.m. (1800 GMT), his head of communications said.

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.

A view of Hagia Sophia or Ayasofya, a UNESCO World Heritage Site, which was a Byzantine cathedral before being converted into a mosque, Istanbul, Turkey, June 30, 2020.
A view of Hagia Sophia or Ayasofya, a UNESCO World Heritage Site, which was a Byzantine cathedral before being converted into a mosque, Istanbul, Turkey, June 30, 2020. Credit: REUTERS/Murad Sezer

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 and Greece had also urged Turkey to maintain the building as a museum.

But Turkish groups have long campaigned for Hagia Sophia's conversion into a mosque, saying this would better reflect Turkey's status as an overwhelmingly Muslim country.

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