Erdogan signs decree turning Hagia Sophia museum into mosque again

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ANKARA: President Tayyip Erdogan on Friday signed a decree converting Hagia Sophia to a mosque after a Turkish court revoked a 1934 government decree that had turned it into a museum, a copy of the decision showed.

The Hagia Sophia — first a cathedral, then a mosque after the conquest of Istanbul — is inscribed as a UNESCO World Heritage site as part of an area designated as “Historic Areas of Istanbul.”

Erdogan had earlier proposed restoring the mosque status of the UNESCO World Heritage Site — a focal point of both the Christian Byzantine and Muslim Ottoman empires and now one of the most visited monuments in Turkey.

The United States, Greece, and church leaders were among those to express concern about changing the status of the huge 6th Century building, converted into a museum in the early days of the modern secular Turkish state under Mustafa Kemal Ataturk.

“It was concluded that the settlement deed allocated it as a mosque and its use outside this character is not possible legally,” the Council of State, Turkey’s top administrative court, said in a ruling.

“The cabinet decision in 1934 that ended its use as a mosque and defined it as a museum did not comply with laws,” it said.

The association which brought the court case — the latest in a 16-year legal battle — said Hagia Sophia was the property of the Ottoman leader who captured the city in 1453 and turned the already 900-year-old Byzantine church into a mosque.

The Ottomans built minarets alongside the vast domed structure, while inside they added huge calligraphic panels bearing the Arabic names of the early Muslim caliphs alongside the monument’s ancient Christian iconography.

UNESCO urges Turkey for dialogue

The UN’s cultural agency had earlier today warned Turkey against converting the Hagia Sophia museum into a mosque, urging dialogue before any decision is taken.

“This inscription entails a number of commitments and legal obligations,” a UNESCO spokesperson told AFP. “Thus, a state must ensure that no modification affects the exceptional universal value of the property inscribed on its territory,” they added.

The UNESCO spokesperson also noted that any modification required prior notification to the body and possibly examination by its World Heritage Committee. The representative mentioned that the Hagia Sophia inclusion in the “Historic Areas of Istanbul” as a museum had repeatedly been communicated to Turkey through letters.

“We call on the Turkish authorities to initiate a dialogue before any decision is taken which could undermine the universal value of the site,” the spokeswoman said, adding that this message was reiterated to the Turkish ambassador to UNESCO on Thursday. 

Hagia Sophia — whose stunning architecture is a magnet for tourists worldwide — has been a museum since 1935, open to believers of all faiths. The sixth-century edifice was first constructed as a cathedral in the Christian Byzantine Empire but was converted into a mosque after the Ottoman conquest of Constantinople in 1453.

Turning it into a museum was a key reform of the post-Ottoman authorities under the modern republic’s founder, Ataturk. However, calls for it to serve again as a mosque have sparked anger among Christians and tensions between the historic foes and uneasy NATO allies Turkey and Greece.

On the other hand, Russia, which has become an increasingly important partner of Turkey in recent years, has also urged against altering its status.

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