Dismay, elation over monument turned mosque
ANKARA, Turkey — Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan on Friday formally converted Istanbul’s iconic sixth century 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.
The decision to convert Hagia Sophia — a former cathedral that was turned into a mosque after Istanbul’s conquest by the Ottoman Empire and had served as a museum for 86 years — sparked deep dismay among Orthodox Christians.
But there was jubilation outside Hagia Sophia. Dozens of people who awaited the court’s ruling chanted “Allah is great!” when the news was announced.
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, Erdogan signed a decree handing over Hagia Sophia to Turkey’s Religious Affairs Presidency.
Erdogan has demanded that 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 neighboring 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.”
Nationalist and conservative groups have long been yearning to hold prayers at Hagia Sophia, which they regard as part of the Muslim Ottoman legacy. Others believe the UNESCO World Heritage site should remain a museum, as a symbol of Christian and Muslim solidarity.
The group that brought the case to court had contested the legality of the 1934 decision by the modern Turkish republic’s secular government ministers and argued that the building was the personal property of Ottoman Sultan Mehmet II, who conquered Istanbul in 1453.
The Istanbulbased Ecumenical Patriarch Bartholomew I, considered the spiritual leader of the world’s Orthodox Christians, warned in late June that the building’s conversion into a mosque “will turn millions of Christians across the world against Islam.”
Erdogan, a devout Muslim, has frequently used the Hagia Sophia issue to drive support for his Islamicrooted party.
People gather outside the Hagia Sophia in Istanbul to celebrate after Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan formally converted the UNESCO World Heritage site into a mosque.