In a shocking development, Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan led the first Muslim prayers attended by thousands in Hagia Sophia since the controversial reconversion of the iconic Istanbul cathedral into a mosque.
The highest administrative court revoked the sixth-century monument’s status as a museum on July 10. However, Erdogan then ordered the building to reopen for Muslim worship, upsetting the Christian community and further straining ties with Greece.
Outside, tens of thousands more prayed in a public square and on sidewalks, squeezing into spaces between cars or in cafes, joining a ceremony which many saw as righting a historic mistake when the mosque was converted to a museum in 1934 by modern Turkey’s secularist founder Mustafa Kemal Ataturk.
It is to be noted that Hagia Sophia was the largest cathedral in the world for 900 years until its capture by Ottoman Sultan Mehmet the Conqueror in 1453, after which it was one of Islam’s most exalted mosques for nearly another 500 years.
“This is the opening of a place of worship that was conquered by the right of the sword by the holy conqueror,” said worshipper Latif Ozer, 42. “This is a source of great pride for us, great excitement.”
That excitement has not been universally shared. However, Turkey’s move did not go down well with Church leaders and some Western countries. They criticized the decision, stating the shift to exclusive Muslim worship at Hagia Sophia risks deepening religious divisions.
Pope Francis said the decision left him in shock, which came after a top Turkish court annulled Hagia Sophia’s status as a museum two weeks ago. Erdogan immediately issued a decree converting it once again to a mosque.
In Greece, church bells tolled in mourning on Friday. A vast majority of Greeks consider the monument central to their Orthodox Christian religion. Greek criticism of the conversion has been scathing, underscoring the countries’ tense relations.
Greek Prime Minister Kyriakos Mitsotakis called Turkey a “troublemaker”, and the Hagia Sophia conversion an “affront to civilization of the 21st century”.