Erdogan declares Hagia Sophia open for prayers after court ruling, ignoring warnings

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President Tayyip Erdogan declared Istanbul’s Hagia Sophia open to Muslim worship on Friday after a top court ruled that the building's conversion to a museum by modern Turkey's founding statesman was illegal.

Erdogan made his announcement, just an hour after the court ruling was revealed, despite international warnings not to change the status of the nearly 1,500-year-old monument, revered by Christians and Muslims alike.

“The decision was taken to hand over the management of theAyasofya the Religious Affairs Directorate and open
it for worship,” the decision signed by Erdogan said.

Erdogan had earlier 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.

“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 in Ankara, said in its 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, referring to an edict signed by Ataturk.

“Erdogan has been flooding Turkey’s public space, educationpolicy and government with a brand of conservative Islam, and Hagia Sophia is the crowning moment of Erdogan’s religious revolution which has been unfolding in Turkey for over a decade,” said Soner Cagaptay, Director of Turkish research program at Washington Institute for Near East Policy.

“Just as Ataturk nearly 100 years ago ‘unmosqued’ HagiaSophia to underline commitment to his own secularist revolution,to take religion out of politics, Erdogan is now doing nearly the opposite. He is reconverting the building into a mosque to underline his own religious revolution.”

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UNESCO says World Heritage Committee to review Hagia Sophia

UNESCO said on Friday its World Heritage Committee would review Hagia Sophia’s status after Turkish President Tayyip Erdogan declared the Istanbul monument a mosque.

“It is regrettable that the Turkish decision was not the subject of dialog nor notification beforehand,” the United Nation’s cultural body said in a statement.

“UNESCO calls on the Turkish authorities to open a dialog without delay in order to avoid a step back from the universal value of this exceptional heritage whose preservation will be reviewed by the World Heritage Committee in its next session,” it said.

Earlier on Friday, the UN’s cultural agency UNESCO had warned Turkey against converting the Byzantine-era Hagia Sophia museum in Istanbul into a mosque, urging dialogue before any decision is taken.

The Hagia Sophia, which was first a cathedral then a mosque after the conquest of Istanbul, is inscribed as a UNESCO World Heritage site as part of an area designated as “Historic Areas of Istanbul.”

“This inscription entails a number of commitments and legal obligations,” a UNESCO spokeswoman told AFP.

“Thus, a state must ensure that no modification affects the exceptional universal value of the property inscribed on its territory,” the spokeswoman said, adding that any modification requires prior notification to UNESCO and possibly examination by its World Heritage Committee.

She noted that the Hagia Sophia was inscribed within the “Historic Areas of Istanbul” as a museum, a position that had repeatedly been communicated to Turkey through letters.

“We call on the Turkish authorities to initiate a dialogue before any decision is taken which could undermine the universal value of the site,” the spokeswoman said, adding that this message was reiterated to the Turkish ambassador to UNESCO on Thursday.

Magnet for tourists worldwide

The sixth-century edifice -- whose stunning architecture is a magnet for tourists worldwide -- has been a museum since 1935, open to believers of all faiths.

Hagia Sophia 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.

The sixth-century edifice -- whose stunning architecture is a magnet for tourists worldwide -- has been a museum since 1935, open to believers of all faiths. (Reuters)
The sixth-century edifice -- whose stunning architecture is a magnet for tourists worldwide -- has been a museum since 1935, open to believers of all faiths. (Reuters)

Turning it into a museum was a key reform of the post-Ottoman authorities under the modern republic’s founder Mustafa Kemal Ataturk.

But calls for it to serve again as a mosque have sparked anger among Christians and tensions between the historic foes and uneasy NATO allies Turkey and Greece.

But Russia, which has become an increasingly important partner of Turkey in recent years, has also urged against altering its status.

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