Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan has formally reconverted Istanbul’s sixth-century iconic Hagia Sophia into a mosque and declared it open to Muslim worship, hours after a high court annulled a 1934 decision that had turned it into a museum.
But there was jubilation outside Hagia Sophia. Dozens of people who awaited the court’s ruling outside chanted “Allah is great!” when the news came out.
Turkey’s high administrative court threw its weight behind a petition brought by a religious group and annulled the 1934 Cabinet decision that turned the site into a museum.
Within hours, Mr Erdogan signed a decree handing over Hagia Sophia to Turkey’s Religious Affairs Presidency.
UNESCO said on Friday its World Heritage Committee would review Hagia Sophia’s status.
The United Nations’ cultural body said the decision raised questions about the impact on its universal value as a site of importance transcending borders and generations, which is necessary to be included on its coveted list of World Heritage sites.
Mr Erdogan has demanded that the the hugely symbolic world heritage site should be turned back into a mosque despite widespread international criticism, including from the United States and Orthodox Christian leaders. The move could also deepen tensions with neighbouring Greece.
Cypriot Foreign Minister Nikos Christodoulides, a Greek Cypriot, posted on his official Twitter account that Cyprus “strongly condemns Turkey’s actions on Hagia Sophia in its effort to distract domestic opinion and calls on Turkey to respect its international obligations.”
Mr Christodoulides said Turkey’s “escalating, flagrant violation of its international obligations is manifested in its decision to alter the designation of Hagia Sophia, a world heritage site that is a universal symbol of the Orthodox faith.”
Patriarch Kirill, the leader of the Russian Orthodox Church, called for “prudence” and the preservation of the “current neutral status” for the Hagia Sophia, which he said was one of Christianity’s “devoutly venerated symbols.”
In a statement this week, he said: “Russia is a country with the majority of the population professing Orthodoxy, and so, what may happen to Hagia Sophia will inflict great pain on the Russian people.”
US State Secretary Mike Pompeo said last month that the landmark should remain a museum to serve as bridge between faiths and cultures.
Mr Erdogan, a devout Muslim, has frequently used the Hagia Sophia issue, which sits at the heart of Turkey’s religious-secular divide, to drum up support for his Islamic-rooted party.
Some Islamic prayers have been held in the museum in recent years and in a major symbolic move, Mr Erdogan recited the opening verse of the Quran in Hagia Sophia in 2018.
Built under Byzantine Emperor Justinian, Hagia Sophia was the main seat of the Eastern Orthodox church for centuries, where emperors were crowned amid ornate marble and mosaic decorations.
Four minarets were added to the terracotta-hued structure with cascading domes and the building was turned into an imperial mosque following the 1453 Ottoman conquest of Constantinople — the city that is now Istanbul.
The building opened its doors as a museum in 1935, a year after the Council of Ministers’ decision.