Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan announced Friday that the Hagia Sophia, one of the architectural wonders of the world, would be reopened for Muslim worship as a mosque, sparking fury in the Christian community and neighbouring Greece. The world has expressed deep regrets on the conversion of Hagia Sophia to a mosque and has raised questions on its status as a heritage site.
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.
First prayers at Hagia Sophia on July 24th: Erdogan
In an address to the nation, Erdogan said the first Muslim prayers at the Hagia Sophia would be performed on July 24.
“God willing, we will perform Friday prayers all together on July 24 and reopen 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.”
Read more: Turkey turns Hagia Sophia back into a mosque
The UNESCO World Heritage site in historic Istanbul, a magnet for tourists worldwide, was first constructed as a cathedral in the Christian 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.
The landmark ruling could inflame tensions not just with the West and Turkey’s historic foe Greece but also Russia, with which Erdogan has forged an increasingly close partnership in recent years.
World regrets Hagia Sophia conversion: US ‘disappointed’
The United States said Friday it was “disappointed” by Turkey’s decision to turn the Byzantine-era monument Hagia Sophia back into a mosque and urged equal access for all visitors.
“We are disappointed by the decision by the government of Turkey to change the status of the Hagia Sophia,” State Department spokeswoman Morgan Ortagus said.
“We understand the Turkish government remains committed to maintaining access to the Hagia Sophia for all visitors, and look forward to hearing its plans for continued stewardship of the Hagia Sophia to ensure it remains accessible without impediment for all,” she said.
Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan, who has chipped away at the Muslim-majority country’s secularism, announced Muslim prayers on July 24 at the UNESCO World Heritage site.
Erdogan’s announcement came after the cancellation of a decision under modern Turkey’s secularizing founder Mustafa Kemal Ataturk to preserve the church-turned-mosque as a museum.
Erdogan went ahead despite an open appeal to the NATO ally by US Secretary of State Mike Pompeo, an evangelical Christian who frequently speaks about religious freedom.
In a statement last week, Pompeo called the museum status an “exemplar” of Turkey’s “commitment to respect the faith traditions and diverse history” of the country and said a change risked “diminishing the legacy of this remarkable building.”
Democratic presidential candidate Joe Biden also said Friday he deeply regretted Turkey’s decision.
Biden called on Erdogan to reverse it “and instead keep this treasured place in its current status as a museum, ensuring equal access for all.”
World regrets Hagia Sophia conversion: UNESCO deeply regretful
The UN’s cultural agency UNESCO Friday said it deeply regretted Turkey’s decision to turn the Hagia Sophia in Istanbul from a museum into a mosque, lamenting there had been no prior dialogue on the status of the former Byzantine cathedral.
UNESCO chief Audrey Azoulay “deeply regrets the decision of the Turkish authorities, taken without prior dialogue, to modify the status of the Hagia Sophia,” the UN agency said in a statement,
It added that she had expressed her concern to the Turkish ambassador to the body.
It is inscribed as a UNESCO World Heritage site as part of an area of the city designated as “Historic Areas of Istanbul.”
UNESCO warned that the move risked harming the universal nature of Hagia Sophia as a place open to all of civilisation, a key aspect of its World Heritage status.
It said that any modification requires prior notification to UNESCO and possibly examination by its World Heritage Committee, which adds — and sometimes removes — sites from the coveted list of UNESCO World Heritage.
“This decision announced today raises the issue of the impact of this change of status on the property’s universal value,” said UNESCO.
It warned that the “state of conservation” of the Hagia Sophia would be examined by the World Heritage Committee at its next meeting.
“UNESCO calls upon the Turkish authorities to initiate dialogue without delay, in order to prevent any detrimental effect on the universal value of this exceptional heritage,” the statement said.
It warned that changes to physical access or structure of the building could constitute violations of the 1972 World Heritage Convention.
“Hagia Sophia is an architectural masterpiece and a unique testimony to interactions between Europe and Asia over the centuries,” said Azoulay.
“Its status as a museum reflects the universal nature of its heritage, and makes it a powerful symbol for dialogue,” she added.
AFP with additional input by GVS News Desk