President Recep Tayyip Erdogan declared Istanbul’s iconic Hagia Sophia open to Muslim worship on Friday after a top court ruled the building’s conversion to a museum by modern Turkey’s founding statesman was illegal.
Erdogan made his announcement, just an hour after the court ruling was revealed, despite international warnings not to change the status of the nearly 1,500-year-old monument, revered by Christians and Muslims alike.
“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.
The UNESCO World Heritage Site in Istanbul, a magnet for tourists worldwide, was first constructed as a cathedral in the Christian Byzantine Empire but was converted into a mosque after the Ottoman conquest of Constantinople in 1453.
The Council of State, Turkey’s highest administrative court, unanimously cancelled a 1934 cabinet decision and said Hagia Sophia was registered as a mosque in its property deeds.
The United States, Greece and church leaders were among those to express concern about changing the status of the huge sixth-century building, converted into a museum in the early days of the modern secular Turkish state under Mustafa Kemal Ataturk.