10 July 2020 20:33

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Turkey's president, Recep Tayyip Erdoğan, has formally converted Istanbul's crowning architectural jewel, the Hagia Sophia, from a museum into a mosque – a politically charged decision that has drawn international criticism but delighted his conservative base. Turkey's highest administrative court, the council of state, paved the way for the move after it ruled unanimously on Friday to annul a 1934 cabinet decree that stripped the 1,500-year-old building of its religious status. Erdoğan signed a presidential decree turning the hugely symbolic site back into a Muslim house of worship almost immediately after the ruling was announced. Hagia Sophia: the mosque-turned-museum at the heart of an ideological battle Read more Members of his ruling Justice and Development party (AKP) greeted the decree with a standing ovation in parliament, and the call to prayer was recited from the building's minarets on Friday afternoon while supporters celebrated outside. The Unesco-listed Hagia Sophia (Divine Wisdom), known in Turkey as Ayasofya, was completed in 537AD by the Byzantine emperor Justinian, and for centuries served as one of the world's most important centres of Christianity.

The cathedral was converted into an imperial mosque 550 years ago after the Ottoman conquest of Constantinople, and became a museum on the orders of Mustafa Kemal Atatürk, the founder of the Turkish Republic. The status of the world heritage site has been debated for decades by Christians, Muslims and those who believe in preserving the Turkish state's secular principles. Friday's ruling was the outcome of a case brought by a religious group that has campaigned for years to restore the Hagia Sophia's Muslim heritage. It questioned the legality of Atatürk's decision, telling the court that the building was the personal property of Ottoman Sultan Mehmed II, who conquered Istanbul in 1453, and that a foundation managing the sultan's assets originally opened the site to the public as a mosque. Erdoğan, who has championed Islamic values during his 17 years in power, publicly took up the cause last year in an effort to shore up waning support for his government coalition.

Recent polling by a pro-government newspaper found that 73% of Turks were in favour of converting the museum back into a house of worship, although another survey conducted by Metropoll found that 44% of respondents believed the building's fate had been put on the agenda to divert voters' attention away from Turkey's economic woes. In the runup to the court's decision, Ankara's international allies and foes alike criticised the impending move. It has further soured tensions with neighbouring Greece, which claims the building as an important part of its own history. The Greek culture minister, Lina Mendoni, called the decision an "open provocation to the civilised world" in a statement on Friday. "Hagia Sophia, located on Turkey's territory, in Istanbul, is a monument to all mankind, regardless of religion. The nationalism shown by President Erdoğan … leads his country back six centuries," she said. Cyprus's foreign minister, Nikos Christodoulides, wrote on Twitter that Cyprus "strongly condemns Turkey's actions on Hagia Sophia in its effort to distract domestic opinion and calls on Turkey to respect its international obligations". Ecumenical Patriarch Bartholomew, the spiritual head of 300 million Orthodox Christians, warned before the ruling that altering the status of the building would fracture the eastern and western worlds. Russia's Orthodox church said turning it into a mosque was "unacceptable". Last month the US secretary of state, Mike Pompeo, said any change would diminish the Hagia Sophia's ability "to serve humanity as a much-needed bridge between those of differing faith, traditions and cultures". Unesco, too, has said any changes to the building's status must be reviewed by its world heritage committee. Turkey has hit back at the international criticism, claiming that the Hagia Sophia's future is an issue of national sovereignty – a favourite topic for the populist president. The first prayers inside the building are expected to be held on 15 July, the fourth anniversary of a failed coup against Erdoğan's government. Turkey's president has signed a decree to formally turn the Hagia Sophia into a mosque - a move which threatens to upset Christians around the world. The monument in Istanbul has been a disputed symbol between Christianity and Islam for centuries - it was built as a Greek Orthodox Cathedral in 537AD but was turned into a mosque after the city was conquered by the Ottomans in 1453. After the fall of the Ottoman Empire during the First World War, Turkey's founding father Mustafa Kemal Ataturk turned Hagia Sophia into a museum in 1934; a sign of his commitment to a secular future for the country - separating state from religion. Recep Tayyip Erdogan's decision to issue his decree comes after a landmark decision by Turkey's high court that the Hagia Sophia's conversion into a museum was unlawful. Image: The monument has been a disputed symbol between Christianity and Islam for centuries Greece described the ruling as an "open provocation to the civilised world", with the US and UNESCO also among those condemning the decision. Advertisement The move is not about creating more space for prayer as Istanbul has more than 3,000 mosques. Rather, the decision reflects the wider societal struggle within Turkey between secularism and President Erdogan's religious conservatism. The usual crowd of tourists was absent as the announcement came, but the predominantly Turkish media gathered outside Hagia Sophia. Turkish officials have said opening Hagia Sophia to prayer will not stop tourists from visiting the site and have offered reassurance that the building's Christian icons will be preserved. However, historian Zeynep Ahunbay, who has worked on the conservation of Hagia Sophia for 27 years, doesn't see how that will be possible. She said: "With the images of Madonna, mother of Christ, and other saints on the walls - do they accept to pray in the presence of these images? "It's a [UNESCO] world heritage site and I want it to be open to all nations and beliefs and accessible. If it becomes a mosque there are restrictions. Image: Officials say the building's Christian icons will be preserved Image: Istanbul already has more than 3,000 mosques "They try to put up curtains or other means of restrictions and that's not acceptable for a world heritage monument," she added. "It is not acceptable to go back in time. I'm really sorry we have come to 2020 and we are trying to go back to the 19th century. "There is already tension in Turkey because there is a reaction to these conservative people who make decisions as if we are an Islamic country," she said. Turkey is overwhelmingly Muslim and this move to reclaim Hagia Sophia as a mosque is seen as a bid to boost Mr Erdogan's AK Party's sliding popularity polls. Image: Hagia Sophia will still be open to visitors, officials say The move may prove popular with Mr Erdogan's conservative supporters and nationalists but church leaders have argued Hagia Sophia was Christian for nearly 900 years and Muslim for only 500 years. Last year the monument attracted more than 3.7 million visitors but tourism and Turkey's struggling economy have been badly impacted by the coronavirus pandemic. The Turkish economy had already been in a fragile state and many believe this move was to distract public attention from Ankara's crisis. But flattened tourism and rising unemployment means any distraction could be short-lived. The UNESCO World Heritage Site is one of the oldest and most striking religious buildings in the world. Its 30m (98ft) dome, framed by four minarets, dominates Istanbul's skyline. As a museum it has preserved its long history between Christianity and Islam, a symbol of Istanbul's position as a bridge between the East and the West. It is perhaps the only former building of worship in the world where you see this hybrid of two religions sitting side by side in its frescos, inscriptions and striking mix of architecture. Some fear it will now lose its sense of inclusion and become a divisive symbol. During President Erdogan's time in office mosques have sprung up in some of Istanbul's most important sites. A newly-constructed mosque now towers over the secular monument in Taksim square. As the mosque was being built, the city's opera house was demolished - a symbol of the Ataturk era. Hagia Sophia could be open for prayers as early as 15 July - the date of the attempted coup in Turkey four years ago and now a national holiday.