Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan issued a decree Friday ordering Hagia Sophia to be opened for Muslim prayers, an action likely to provoke international furor around a World Heritage Site cherished by Christians for its religious significance, stunning structure and as a symbol of conquest, per The New York Times.
The presidential decree came minutes after a Turkish court announced that it had revoked Hagia Sophia’s status as a museum, which for the last 80 years had made it a monument of relative harmony and a symbol of the secularism that was part of the foundation of the modern Turkish state.
Built in the sixth century as a cathedral, Hagia Sophia stands as the greatest example of Byzantine Christian architecture in the world. But it has been a source of Christian-Muslim rivalry, having stood at the center of Christendom for nearly a millennium and then, after being conquered, of the Muslim Ottoman Empire, when it was last used as a mosque.
Erdogan’s decree transferred control of the site to the Religious Affairs Directorate, sealing the removal of its museum status and allowing Hagia Sophia to become a working mosque once again.
It was a decision long sought by conservative Muslims in Turkey and beyond, but one which opponents say Mr. Erdogan intends to stir his nationalist and religious base as his popularity wanes after 18 years atop Turkish politics.
In a post on Twitter that included a copy of the decree, Mr. Erdogan simply wrote “Hayirli olsun,’’ or “Congratulations.”
Immediately after the announcement a small crowd gathered outside Hagia Sophia, some of them chanting “Allahu akbar,” or “God is great.” Television footage showed police placing barriers across the entrance to the monument.
Conservationists and art historians have raised concerns about what will happen to the medieval mosaics inside Hagia Sophia, which depict the Holy Family and portraits of imperial Christian emperors, which strict Muslims may demand be covered. Tour guides said that the building may be closed to tourists during prayer times, or even that parts of the building be sectioned off to non-Muslims.
A.K.P. party officials suggested holding the first Muslim prayers in Hagia Sophia, or Ayasofya by its Turkish name, on July 15 to mark the anniversary of a failed coup in 2016 against Mr. Erdogan’s government, during a discussion about the change of status in June, the Turkish daily, Hurriyet, reported.
The court decision came as the culmination of a four-year campaign by an obscure cultural association that made legal applications to restore a number of monuments, including several Byzantine churches, as mosques. Hagia Sophia will be the fourth Byzantine church museum to be restored as a mosque under Mr. Erdogan, but by far the most significant one. In November, the famous Chora monastery church in Istanbul had its status as a museum revoked.
When the plan for Hagia Sophia was floated, it met a chorus of dismay from religious and political leaders around the world. The ecumenical patriarch of Constantinople, Bartholomew, who is the spiritual leader of the Eastern Orthodox Church from his seat in Istanbul, said the conversion of Hagia Sophia into a mosque would disappoint millions of Christians around the world and divide Muslims and Christians since it had long been a place of worship for both.
Hagia Sophia, famous for the grandeur of its immense and iconic dome, was converted into a mosque after Mehmed II the Conqueror held his first Friday prayers there in 1453, three days after seizing control of what was then the city of Constantinople.
Under the secular republic of modern Turkey, the monument was turned into a museum in 1934. It was named a masterpiece of the World Heritage site in Istanbul and has become Turkey’s most popular tourist attraction, drawing 3.7 million visitors last year.
The idea of converting Hagia Sophia back into a mosque prompted immediate pushback from Greece, which sees itself as the heir to the Byzantine Empire. The Greek Foreign Ministry denounced the conversion as unacceptable and a breach of Hagia Sophia’s status as part of a UNESCO World Heritage site.
In a strongly worded statement, the Greek culture minister, Lina Mendoni, condemned Turkey’s decision as a “direct challenge to the entire civilized world,” adding that Mr. Erdogan’s nationalism had pushed the country back six centuries.