Turkey’s ancient Hagia Sofia can be converted to a mosque, court rules

A Turkish court said on Friday it annulled a 1934 government decree turning Istanbul’s Hagia Sophia into a museum, ruling it was unlawful, paving the way for the building’s conversion back into a mosque despite international warnings against such a move.

President Tayyip Erdogan, who has championed Islam and religious observance during his 17-year rule, supported the Hagia Sophia campaign, saying Muslims should be able to pray there again.

Erdogan had 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.

“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, said in a 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.

Visitors pose for a picture at Hagia Sophia or Ayasofya, the UNESCO World Heritage Site which was a Byzantine cathedral before being converted into a mosque and currently a museum. (Murad Sezer/Reuters)

Hagia Sophia is nearly 1,500 years old and served as one of the most exalted seats of Christian and then Muslim worship in the world.

The association that brought the court case, the latest in a 16-year legal battle, said Hagia Sophia was the property of Sultan Mehmet, the Ottoman leader who captured the city in 1453 and turned the already 900-year-old Byzantine church into a mosque.

Erdogan acted quickly after the ruling, signing and tweeting a decree that declared Hagia Sophia open to Muslim worship.

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

Condemnation from Orthodox leaders, Pompeo

Outside Turkey, the prospect of change has raised alarm.

Ecumenical Patriarch Bartholomew, spiritual head of 300 million Orthodox Christians, said altering the status of Hagia Sophia would fracture Eastern and Western worlds, while Greek Orthodox leaders and Russia’s Orthodox church have also criticized the potential move.

U.S. Secretary of State Mike Pompeo said any change would diminish its ability “to serve humanity as a much-needed bridge between those of differing faith traditions and cultures.”

Hagia Sophia, or “Divine Wisdom” in Greek, was completed in 537 by Byzantine emperor Justinian.

The vast, domed structure overlooked the Golden Horn harbour and entrance to the Bosphorus from the heart of Constantinople. It was the centre of Orthodox Christianity and remained the world’s largest church for centuries.

Hagia Sophia stayed under Byzantine control — except for a brief seizure by Crusaders in the 13th century — until the city was captured by the Muslim forces of the Ottoman Sultan, Mehmet the Conqueror, who converted it into a mosque.

Ataturk signature questioned

The Ottomans built four minarets, covered Hagia Sophia’s Christian icons and luminous gold mosaics, and installed huge black panels embellished with the names of God, the prophet Mohammad and Muslim caliphs in Arabic calligraphy.

In 1934, Turkey’s first president, Mustafa Kemal Ataturk, forging a secular republic out of the defeated Ottoman Empire, converted Hagia Sophia into a museum, now visited by millions of tourists every year.

The intentions of Turkey’s modern founder Mustafa Kemal Ataturk, depicted on a banner in the city of Edirne seen in March, have been widely debated during the legal battles over the ancient site. (Marko Djurica/Reuters)

The association committed to making Hagia Sophia a mosque again has pressed Turkish courts several times in the last 15 years to annul Ataturk’s decree.

The association even suggested that the president’s signature on the document was forged. That argument was based on a discrepancy in Ataturk’s signature on the edict, passed around the same time that he assumed his surname, from his signature on subsequent documents.

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