Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan re-converted Istanbul’s Hagia Sophia into a mosque Friday, hours after a court ruled that a 1930s decision to make the iconic building into a museum had been unlawful.
Erdogan said in a decree shared on Twitter that he had handed the majestic domed building over to the government’s directorate of religious affairs to open it up to worshipers.
Soon after the decision, state media broadcast video of crowds gathering outside the the sixth-century structure.
Earlier in a big win for the president’s conservative Islamic agenda, Turkey’s highest administrative court threw its weight behind a motion brought by a religious group, annulling a 1934 ruling that turned the building into a museum.
Erdogan had proposed restoring the UNESCO World Heritage site into a mosque, placing the almost 1,500-year-old building at the center of a struggle between those who want to preserve Turkey’s secular roots and the president’s aspirations.
In a televised address to the nation, Erdogan said the first prayers inside Hagia Sofia would be held on July 24.
“I underline that we will open Hagia Sophia to worship as a mosque by preserving its character of humanity’s common cultural heritage,” he said, adding that that it was Turkey’s sovereign right to decide what the building would be used for.
Rejecting the idea that he decision the decision would prevent different faiths from coming together, he said: “Like all of our other mosques, the doors of Hagia Sophia will be open to all, locals or foreigners, Muslims and non-Muslims.”
Hagia Sophia was the Byzantine Empire’s main cathedral before it was changed into a mosque following the Ottoman conquest of Istanbul. Under Mustafa Kemal Ataturk, the founder of the modern Turkish republic in the 20th century, it was turned into a museum that attracts millions of tourists each year.
Many in Turkey will welcome the decision, and see it as an emphatic victory for Erdogan’s plans for the secular but predominantly Muslim country.
“Mehmet the Conqueror took the holy city with his sword, he always wanted Hagia Sophia to be a mosque,” Ozlem Kaya, 52, a homemaker from Istanbul, said ahead of the decision, referring to the 15th-century Ottoman sultan who captured the city, then known as Constantinople.
“With Erdogan, Turkey will be a more powerful country in the near future,” she said by telephone. “There is no need to be secular anymore.”
The Hagia Sophia site has been a part of a centuries-old struggle over the identity of the region that sits on the fault line between the East and the West, and between Christianity and Islam.
The Ecumenical Patriarch Bartholomew, the spiritual head of some 300 million Orthodox Christians worldwide and based in Istanbul, said ahead of the ruling that converting the Hagia Sophia into a mosque will “disappoint millions of Christians around the world” and will “fracture” the East and the West.
“As [a] museum, Hagia Sophia can function as place and symbol of encounter, dialogue and peaceful coexistence of peoples and cultures, mutual understanding and solidarity between Christianity and Islam,” he said in a statement posted on Facebook last week.
Tuma Celik, 56, a Syriac Christian and a member of Parliament with the Turkish pro-Kurdish People’s Democratic Party, or the HDP, said he was against turning the Hagia Sophia into a mosque. “This court decision has made what we all know and experience in reality very clear, that today’s Turkey is not secular,” he said via WhatsApp.
Founded in 1923, modern-day Turkey was built on the secular belief of separating religion and state.
However, almost a century later, the country still wrestles with how its secular governance intersects with the fact that it is predominantly Muslim. Turkey’s Christian community, for example, is believed to number around 100,000 people, a tiny fraction in a country of more than 83 million.
The conversion of the Hagia Sophia into a museum originally was part of a broader effort by Ataturk’s government to secularize the country. Today, Erdogan is widely believed to be doing the opposite.
Since assuming power, Erdogan and his Justice and Development Party, or AK Party, have made Turkey more religious and conservative, including by relaxing strict secular laws that barred women from wearing Islamic headscarves in schools and public offices.
After the ruling, U.S. State Department Spokesperson Morgan Ortagus said: “We are disappointed by the decision by the Government of Turkey to change the status of the Hagia Sophia. This building is an important part of the “Historic Sites of Istanbul” UNESCO World Heritage Site, in recognition of its rich multicultural history.”
“We understand the Turkish Government remains committed to maintaining access to the Hagia Sophia for all visitors, and look forward to hearing its plans for continued stewardship of the Hagia Sophia to ensure it remains accessible without impediment for all.”
Erdogan is not the first person to suggest the building’s status as a mosque should be restored. Thousands of Muslim Turks have prayed outside the building over the years to demand that it be reconverted to a place of worship.
But not everyone is convinced by what is driving the move.
Nearly 44 percent of the population think the move is designed to divert attention from the current economic crisis and nearly 12 percent think the government believes the debate will politically benefit it in case of a possible snap election, according to Turkish pollster MetroPoll. Only some 29 percent believe it is motivated by a desire to return the museum back into a mosque, according to the poll.
The Associated Press and Reuters contributed to this report.