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Court ruling paves way for Istanbul's Hagia Sophia to revert to mosque

Turkey may convert Hagia Sophia into a mosque

A Turkish court is likely to announce on Friday that the 1934 conversion of Istanbul's Hagia Sophia into a museum was unlawful, two Turkish officials said, paving the way for its restoration as a mosque despite worldwide concerns.

The UN's cultural agency Unesco earlier on Friday warned Turkey against converting Hagia Sophia into a mosque, urging dialogue before any decision was taken.

"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 Council of State threw its weight behind a petition brought by a religious group and annulled a 1934 Cabinet decision that changed the building into a museum.

Hagia Sophia is almost 1,500 years old and served as one of the most exalted seats of Christian and then Muslim worship in the world, meaning that any change to its status will have a profound impact on followers of both faiths.

Dozens of people who awaited the court's ruling outside the Hagia Sophia jubilantly chanted, "Allah is great!" when the news came out.

While the decision has been taken unanimously, it can be appealed within 30 days.

Not only will visitors from overseas be puzzled by the move, but President Recep Tayyip Erdogan's push to annul the site's museum status has not gone down well in neighboring Athens, or even in the U.S., for that matter, where Secretary of State Mike Pompeo advised against going ahead with the ill-considered plan.

Ahead of the court decision, Justice Minister Abdulhamit Gul shared a picture of Hagia Sophia on its official Twitter account, with a message: "Have good Friday".

Shortly after the ruling, Erdogan signed a decree opening Istanbul's Hagia Sophia for prayers.

Hagia Sophia is one of the most visited sites in Turkey
Hagia Sophia is one of the most visited sites in Turkey

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It was a decision long sought by conservative Muslims in Turkey and beyond and especially by President Recep Tayyip Erdogan, whose popularity is waning after 18 years atop Turkish politics, the New York Times reports.

Hagia Sofia is a UNESCO World Heritage Site and part of the "Historic Areas of Istanbul" property which entails "a number of legal commitments and obligations", the United Nations agency warned on Friday ahead of the ruling.

The US has urged 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'.

The court ruled that Hagia Sophia was owned by a foundation established by Sultan Mehmet II, also known as Mehmet the Conqueror, and was presented to the community as a mosque.

Turkey will still preserve Christian icons there, just like our ancestors preserved all Christian values, said Kalin.

"The accusations made against our country regarding the Hagia Sophia means a direct attack on our sovereignty", he said.

President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan led a campaign to reverse its conversion into a museum in 1934 despite global opposition, including from the U.S.

Greece condemned the decision as "an open provocation to the civilised world", while Russia's Orthodox Church said it was bitterly disappointed and that "millions of Christians" had been ignored by Turkey. Erdogan's move today is a deep affront to Christians around the world who look to Hagia Sophia as a shining light and deeply revered holy site. Large crowds have gathered outside Hagia Sophia on the May 31 anniversary of the city's conquest to pray and demand that it be restored as a place of Muslim worship.

People visit Hagia Sophia or Ayasofya, a UNESCO World Heritage Site, which was a Byzantine cathedral before being converted into a mosque which is now a museum, in Istanbul, Turkey, June 30, 2020.