The former Hagia Sophia in Istanbul - FRILET / SIPA

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. The Council of State, the highest administrative court in Turkey, acceded to the request of several associations Friday by revoking a government decision dating from 1934 granting Hagia Sophia the status of museum.

"The Court decides to revoke the decision of the Council of Ministers which is the subject of this request," announced the court in its pleadings. A major architectural work built in the 6th century by the Byzantines who crowned their emperors there, Hagia Sophia is a UNESCO World Heritage Site, and one of the main tourist attractions in Istanbul with some 3.8 million visitors in 2019.

Transformed into a museum in 1934

Converted into a mosque after the capture of Constantinople by the Ottomans in 1453, it was transformed into a museum in 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 brought justice in vain to demand a return to mosque status.

The Court explained that in the deeds of property in the name of the Mehmet Fatih Foundation, named after the Ottoman sultan who conquered Constantinople in the 15th century, Hagia Sophia was listed as a mosque and that this qualification could not be changed.

"It was decided that the Hagia Sophia mosque will be placed under the administration of Diyanet (the Authority for Religious Affairs) and will be reopened to prayers," announced Recep Erdogan shortly after in a decree, in which he designated the monument like a "mosque". It was unclear whether this decree would come into effect immediately. Recep Erdogan is to address the nation in the late afternoon.

"The chains have been broken"

Several countries, notably Russia and Greece, which closely follow the fate of Byzantine heritage in Turkey, as well as the United States and France, have in particular warned Ankara against the transformation of Hagia Sophia into a place of Muslim worship , a measure for which the Islamic-conservative president Erdogan has campaigned 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 "undermine" "universal value" of this monument.

Recep 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 in favor of a retraining of Hagia Sophia 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 Turkey's Ottoman past and Erdogan is instrumental in galvanizing its base and measuring its rivals at home and abroad", dissects Anthony Skinner, from the consulting firm Verisk Maplecroft .

Since the arrival of Recep Erdogan in power in 2003, activities related 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 is losing its status as a museum and becoming 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 is a shame that she has not intervened before, that is why I am very happy, ”adds Umut Cagri, another resident of Istanbul.

Possible tensions

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

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 -, changing the status of such an emblematic place in the he history of Christianity could cause tension.

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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