Turkish President Tayyip Erdogan declared Istanbul’s Hagia Sophia a mosque on Friday hours after a top court ruled the ancient building’s conversion to a museum by modern Turkey’s founding statesman was illegal.
“With this court ruling, and with the measures we took in line with the decision, Hagia Sophia became a mosque again, after 86 years, in the way Fatih the conqueror of Istanbul had wanted it to be,” Erdogan said in a national address.
President Erdogan said Turkey could now leave behind “the curse of Allah, profits and angels” that Fatih – the Ottoman Sultan Mehmet II – said would be on anyone who converted it from a mosque.
“Like all our mosques, the doors of Hagia Sophia will be open to all, locals and foreigners, Muslims and non-Muslims,” said Erdogan.
Tellingly, Hagia Sophia will be opened for prayers on July 24, the day when in 1923 Lausanne the treaty officially ended hostilities between the Allies and the Turkish state led by the Grand National Assembly and marked most of Turkey’s current borders.
It also reversed the extensive losses of Turkish-inhabited territories that were laid out in the Sevres Treaty, forced upon the Ottoman Empire by Allied powers, the daily Sabah said adding: It also put an end to the centuries-long economic concessions granted by the Ottoman Empire to European powers.
“It is about our sovereignty rights,” Erdoğan said in his speech on Friday.
The association which brought the court case, the latest in a 16-year legal battle, said Hagia Sophia was the property of Sultan Mehmet II who captured the city in 1453 and turned the already 900-year-old Greek Orthodox cathedral into a mosque.
The Ottomans built minarets alongside the vast domed structure, while inside they added panels bearing the Arabic names of God, the Prophet Mohammad, and Muslim caliphs. The golden mosaics and Christian icons, obscured by the Ottomans, were uncovered again when Hagia Sophia became a museum.
Dismissing claims as untrue that world historical heritage would be “shadowed or destroyed” by the decision, presidential spokesman Ibrahim Kalin has said: “In regards to the arguments of secularism, religious tolerance and coexistence, there are more than four hundred churches and synagogues open in Turkey today.”
Reaction to Turkish move
UNESCO said its World Heritage Committee would review Hagia Sophia’s status, saying it was “regrettable that the Turkish decision was not the subject of dialog nor notification beforehand”.
“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,” the United Nation’s cultural body said in a statement.
The United States on July 1 urged the Turkish government to continue to maintain the status of Hagia Sophia in Istanbul as a museum, pushing back on Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan’s proposal to restore the mosque status of the UNESCO World Heritage Site.
“We urge the Government of Turkey to continue to maintain the Hagia Sophia as a museum, as an exemplar of its commitment to respect the faith traditions and diverse history that contributed to the Republic of Turkey, and to ensure it remains accessible to all,” Secretary of State Mike Pompeo said in a statement.
“The United States views a change in the status of the Hagia Sophia as diminishing the legacy of this remarkable building and its unsurpassed ability—so rare in the modern world—to serve humanity as a much-needed bridge between those of differing faith traditions and cultures,” Pompeo said in a statement.
By reversing one of Ataturk’s most symbolic steps, which underlined the former leader’s commitment to a secular republic, Erdogan has capped his own project to restore Islam in public life, said Soner Cagaptay, director of the Turkish Research Program at the Washington Institute for Near East Policy.
“Hagia Sophia is the crowning moment of Erdogan’s religious revolution which has been unfolding in Turkey for over a decade,” he said, pointing to greater emphasis on religion in education and across government.
Vladimir Dzhabarov, deputy head of the foreign affairs committee in the Russian upper house of parliament, called the action “a mistake”.
“Turning it into a mosque will not do anything for the Muslim world. It does not bring nations together, but on the contrary brings them into collision,” he said.
The Russian Orthodox Church said it regretted that the court did not take its concerns into account and said the decision could lead to even greater divisions.
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.
Giulio Meotti of Gate Stone Institute, the New York-based anti-Muslim think tank, By turning Hagia Sophia into a mosque, Erdogan has been able to embarrass Washington, mock Brussels and defy Moscow. For Erdogan, Hagia Sophia is the prime symbol of Christianity’s subjugation to Islam.
For 916 years, Hagia Sophia had been the “world’s largest basilica” and the main seat of the Eastern Orthodox Church where, for centuries, emperors were crowned.