The celebrations for the reopening of Hagia Sophia as a mosque have started in Istanbul. Numerous believers gathered in the morning in front of the former museum, where the first Muslim Friday prayer has started since midday. Believers were also gathered inside the mosque, as shown by television pictures.
500 dignitaries have announced their participation in prayer. Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan also wants to take part in the prayer. He described the use of Hagia Sophia as a mosque as a "dream of our youth".
Some believers had stayed in tents in front of the mosque. Authorities asked them to wear masks and to keep the minimum distance. In the morning, journalists reported huge crowds of people who would be close together. Many roads were closed to traffic the evening before. In total, more than 20,000 police officers are said to be on duty.
The Turkish Supreme Administrative Court had canceled Hagia Sophia's status as a museum two weeks ago. Erdoğan then ordered its use as a mosque.
The Hagia Sophia was built as a church in the 6th century AD and after the conquest of Constantinople (now Istanbul) by the Ottomans converted into a mosque. The building was turned into a museum in 1934 by order of the Turkish founder Mustafa Kemal Ataturk.
The conversion is criticized internationally. Orthodox churches in Greece and the USA want to celebrate Friday as the "day of mourning".
Nobel Laureate in Literature Orhan Pamuk said that the rededication of Hagia Sophia contradicted Mustafa Kemal Ataturk's intentions. His goal was a secular and at the same time Muslim-influenced Turkey, Pamuk told Deutsche Welle: "Turkey as part of the great European culture and civilization." However, the opposition is not clearly enough against Erdoğan's decision, and critics would find it difficult to be heard.