World

Turkey: open path for the transformation of Hagia Sophia into a mosque

(Istanbul) Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan announced on Friday the opening of the former Hagia Sophia in Istanbul for Muslim prayers after a court paved the way for its transformation into a mosque by canceling its current museum status.

Fulya OZERKAN

France Media Agency

The Council of State, the highest administrative court in Turkey, acceded to the request of several associations on Friday by revoking a government decision dating from 1934 giving Sainte-Sophie the status of a museum.

Major architectural work built in the VI e century by the Byzantines who crowned it their emperors, Hagia Sophia is a UNESCO World Heritage Site, and one of the main tourist attractions of Istanbul with some 3.8 million visitors in 2019.

PHOTO OZAN KOSE, ARCHIVES FRANCE-PRESSE AGENCY

The former Sainte-Sophie basilica received around 3.8 million visitors in 2019.

Converted to mosque after the capture of Constantinople by the Ottomans in 1453 , it was transformed into a museum into 1934 by the leader of the young Turkish Republic, Mustafa Kemal, anxious to “offer it to humanity”.

However, its status is regularly the subject of controversy: since 2005, associations have repeatedly approached the courts in vain to demand a return to mosque status.

“The Court has decided to revoke the decision of the Council of Ministers which is the subject of this request,” the court announced in its pleadings.

“It has been decided that Hagia Sophia will be placed under the administration of Diyanet [l’Autorité des affaires religieuses] and will be reopened for prayer,” Erdogan announced shortly after in a statement posted on Twitter.

M. Erdogan is scheduled to address the nation on Friday.

“The chains have been broken”

Several countries, notably Russia and Greece, which closely follow the fate of the Byzantine heritage in Turkey, as well as the United States and France, have in particular warned Ankara against the transformation of Hagia Sophia in Muslim places of worship, a measure for which the Islamoconservative President Erdogan has been campaigning for years.

Shortly before the announcement of the decision, UNESCO said it was “concerned” about the fate of the former basilica and called on Turkey to dialogue before any measure likely to “harm” the “universal value” of this monument.

M. Erdogan, a nostalgic for the Ottoman Empire who is today seeking to rally the conservative electorate against the background of the economic crisis due to the pandemic of new coronavirus and a difficult regional context, has several times said that he is favorable to a reconversion of Saint -Sophy in a mosque.

Last year, he called his transformation into a museum “a very big mistake”.

“Hagia Sophia is probably the most visible symbol of the Ottoman past of Turkey and Erdogan is instrumental in galvanizing its base and measuring its rivals at home and abroad”, dissects Anthony Skinner, from consulting firm Verisk Maplecroft.

Since the arrival of Mr. Erdogan in power in 2003, the activities linked to Islam have multiplied inside Hagia Sophia, with in particular sessions to read the Koran or collective prayers on the square in front of the monument.

” I'm very emotive. The fact that Hagia Sophia loses its status as a museum and becomes a mosque overwhelms all Muslims, “Mucayit Celik, a Stambouliote met in front of the monument, told AFP.

“It's a decision I've been waiting for for years. It’s a shame it hasn’t happened before, that’s why I’m so happy, ”said another Istanbul resident, Umut Cagri.

Several hundred people gathered in front of the former basilica, where a reinforced police device was deployed, waving Turkish flags and chanting “the chains have been broken” to celebrate the decision of the Council of State .

PHOTO EMRAH GUREL, ASSOCIATED PRESS

Even if a reconversion of Hagia Sophia into a mosque should not prevent tourists of all faiths from going there – many of them visit the nearby Blue Mosque every day -, modify the status of a such an emblematic place in the history of Christianity could cause tensions.

The Russian Orthodox Church thus regretted that the “concern” of “millions of Christians” had not been heard by the Turkish court.

Greece, through the Minister of Culture Lina Mendoni, described the Turkish court's decision as “a provocation to the civilized world”.

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