Istanbul's Hagia Sophia opens as a mosque for first Friday prayers

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Hind Al Soulia - Riyadh - Thousands of Muslims made their way to Istanbul’s landmark Hagia Sophia on Friday for the first prayers in 86 years at what was a cathedral, mosque and then museum before its reconversion into a Muslim place of worship.

Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan is due attend the inaugural prayers inside the sixth-century monument with around 500 dignitaries, as he fulfils what he has described as the “dream of our youth” anchored in Turkey's Islamic movement.

Thousands of men and women, including many who travelled from across Turkey, quickly filled segregated areas outside of Hagia Sophia to be part of the first prayers.

Several camped near the structure overnight. Dozens of worshippers broke through one police checkpoint to rush toward Hagia Sophia and social distancing practices, in place due to the coronavirus outbreak, were being ignored, Turkish media reported.

Orthodox church leaders in Greece and the United States were to observe “a day of mourning” over the inaugural prayers.

Brushing aside international criticism, Erdogan issued a decree restoring the iconic building as a mosque earlier this month, shortly after a Turkish high court ruled that the Hagia Sophia had been illegally made into a museum more than eight decades ago.

The structure, listed as UNESCO World Heritage site, has since been renamed “The Grand Hagia Sophia Mosque.”

The move sparked dismay in Greece, the US and among Christian churches who had called on Mr Erdogan to maintain it as a museum as a nod to Istanbul's multi-religious heritage and the structure's status as a symbol of Christian and Muslim unity. Pope Francis expressed his sadness.

Built by the Byzantine Emperor Justinian in 537, Hagia Sophia was turned into a mosque with the 1453 Ottoman conquest of Istanbul. Mustafa Kemal Ataturk, the founding leader of the secular Turkish republic converted the structure into a museum in 1934.

Religious and nationalist groups in Turkey have long yearned for the building, which they regard as the legacy of Ottoman Sultan Mehmet the Conquerer, to be reverted into a mosque.

“This is Hagia Sophia breaking away from its captivity chains. It was the greatest dream of our youth,” Mr Erdogan said last week. “It was the yearning of our people and it has been accomplished.”

Hagia Sophia, a Unesco World Heritage Site in Istanbul. Turkey’s top administrative court revoked the 1,500-year-old former cathedral’s status as a museum. Reuters

Hagia Sophia museum in Istanbul. Turkey’s top administrative court announced its decision to revoke the 1,500-year-old former cathedral’s status as a museum. AFP

Hagia Sophia museum in Istanbul. Turkey’s top administrative court announced its decision to revoke the 1,500-year-old former cathedral’s status as a museum. AFP

People visit the Byzantine-era Hagia Sophia, one of Istanbul's main tourist attractions. Turkey’s top administrative courtannounced its decision to revoke the 1,500-year-old former cathedral’s status as a museum. AP Photo

A view of the Byzantine-era Hagia Sophia, one of Istanbul's main tourist attractions. Turkey’s top administrative court announced its decision to revoke the 1,500-year-old former cathedral’s status as a museum. AP Photo

An imam recites the Quran inside Istanbul's 6th-century Hagia Sophia museum. Turkey’s top administrative court announced its decision to revoke the 1,500-year-old former cathedral’s status as a museum. AP Photo

People visit the Byzantine-era Hagia Sophia, one of Istanbul's main tourist attractions. Turkey’s top administrative court announced its decision to revoke the 1,500-year-old former cathedral’s status as a museum. AP Photo

An aerial view of the Byzantine-era Hagia Sophia, one of Istanbul's main tourist attractions. Turkey’s top administrative court announced its decision to revoke the 1,500-year-old former cathedral’s status as a museum. AP Photo

People walk by the Byzantine-era Hagia Sophia, one of Istanbul's main tourist attractions, in March 2017. Turkey’s top administrative court announced its decision to revoke the 1,500-year-old former cathedral’s status as a museum. AP Photo

A Turkish visitor prays in Hagia Sophia museum in Istanbul. Turkey’s top administrative court announced its decision to revoke the 1,500-year-old former cathedral’s status as a museum. AFP

A Turkish visitor prays in front of the Apsis, facing the eastern direction of Hagia Sophia, in Istanbul. Turkey’s top administrative court on Friday announced its decision to revoke the 1,500-year-old former cathedral’s status as a museum. AFP

People visit Hagia Sophia museum in Istanbul. Turkey’s top administrative court announced its decision to revoke the 1,500-year-old former cathedral’s status as a museum. AFP

People visit Hagia Sophia museum in Istanbul. Turkey’s top administrative court announced its decision to revoke the 1,500-year-old former cathedral’s status as a museum. AFP

People visit Hagia Sophia, a Unesco World Heritage Site, in Istanbul. Turkey’s top administrative court announced its decision to revoke the 1,500-year-old former cathedral’s status as a museum. Reuters

He also described its conversion into a museum by the republic’s founding leaders as a mistake that is being rectified.

In New York, the Greek Orthodox Archdiocese of America, called the inaugural prayers a “cultural and spiritual misappropriation and a violation of all standards of religious harmony and mutual respect.”

It called on the faithful to observe a day "of mourning and of manifest grief.”

Archbishop Elpidophoros of America held a meeting with US President Donald and Vice President Mike Pence in Washington on Thursday to discuss concerns over the reconversion.

Updated: July 24, 2020 01:05 PM

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