Erdogan says first prayers in Hagia Sophia on July 24

Hagia Sophia is nearly 1,500 years old and served as one of the most exalted seats of Christian and then Muslim worship in the world.

Hagia Sophia, Istanbul, Turkey (photo credit: WIKIMEDIA COMMONS/NSERRANO)
Hagia Sophia, Istanbul, Turkey
(photo credit: WIKIMEDIA COMMONS/NSERRANO)
The first prayers will be held in Turkey's Hagia Sophia on July 24, President Tayyip Erdogan said on Friday, after declaring the ancient monument was once again a mosque following a court ruling revoking its status as a museum.
Erdogan said the Hagia Sophia would remain open to Muslims, Christians and foreigners, but added that Turkey had exercised its sovereign right in converting it to a mosque and would interpret criticism of the move as an attack on its independence.
He signed the decree opening Istanbul's Hagia Sophia as a mosque on Friday after a Turkish court annulled a 1934 government decree that had turned it into a museum, ruling it was unlawful, paving the way for the building's conversion back into mosque despite international warnings against such a move.
 
Erdogan shared on his Twitter feed a copy of the decree he had signed which said the decision had been taken to hand control of the Ayasofya Mosque, as it is known in Turkish, to the country's religious directorate and reopen it for worship.
The US State Department on Friday said it was "disappointed" by the government of Turkey's decision to change the status of Hagia Sophia.
"We understand the Turkish Government remains committed to maintaining access to the Hagia Sophia for all visitors, and look forward to hearing its plans for continued stewardship of the Hagia Sophia to ensure it remains accessible without impediment for all," State Department Spokesperson Morgan Ortagus said in a statement.
Greek Prime Minister Kyriakos Mitsotakis also condemned the decision "in the most intense manner."
"This is a choice which offends all those who also recognize the monument as a world heritage site. And of course it does not only affect relations between Turkey and Greece, but its relations with the European Union," Mitsotakis's office said in a written statement.
Hagia Sophia is nearly 1,500 years old and served as one of the most exalted seats of Christian and then Muslim worship in the world, meaning that any change to its status will have a profound impact on followers of both faiths. It is also a UNESCO World Heritage Site.
Here are the key facts of Hagia Sophia's history, the campaign to change its status, and statements by religious and political leaders about its fate.
TWO FAITHS
Hagia Sophia, or 'Divine Wisdom' in Greek, was completed in 537 by Byzantine emperor Justinian.
The vast, domed structure overlooked the Golden Horn harbor and entrance to the Bosphorus from the heart of Constantinople. It was the center of Orthodox Christianity and remained the world's largest church for centuries.
Hagia Sophia stayed under Byzantine control - except for a brief seizure by Crusaders in the 13th century - until the city was captured by the Muslim forces of the Ottoman Sultan, Mehmet the Conqueror, who converted it into a mosque.
The Ottomans built four minarets, covered Hagia Sophia's Christian icons and luminous gold mosaics, and installed huge black panels embellished with the names of God, the prophet Mohammad and Muslim caliphs in Arabic calligraphy.
In 1934 Turkey's first president, Mustafa Kemal Ataturk, forging a secular republic out of the defeated Ottoman Empire, converted Hagia Sophia into a museum, now visited by millions of tourists every year.
Some people now want to change that.
A FORGERY?
A Turkish association committed to making Hagia Sophia a mosque again has pressed Turkish courts several times in the last 15 years to annul Ataturk's decree.
In the latest campaign, it told Turkey's top court that Ataturk's government did not have the right to overrule the wishes of Sultan Mehmet - even suggesting that the president's signature on the document was forged.
That argument was based on a discrepancy in Ataturk's signature on the edict, passed around the same time that he assumed his surname, from his signature on subsequent documents.
Erdogan, who has championed Islam and religious observance during his 17-year rule, supported the Hagia Sophia campaign, saying Muslims should be able to pray there again and raised the issue - which is popular with many pious AKP-voting Turks - during local elections last year.
Turkish pollster Metropoll found that 44% of respondents believe Hagia Sophia was put on the agenda to divert voters' attention from Turkey's economic woes.
The pro-government Hurriyet newspaper reported last month that Erdogan had already ordered the status be changed, but that tourists should still be able to visit Hagia Sophia as a mosque and the issue would be handled sensitively.
REACTION
Outside Turkey, the prospect of change has raised alarm.
- Ecumenical Patriarch Bartholomew, spiritual head of 300 million Orthodox Christians, said altering the status of Hagia Sophia would fracture Eastern and Western worlds. Russia's Orthodox church said turning it into a mosque was unacceptable.
- US Secretary of State Mike Pompeo said any change would diminish its ability "to serve humanity as a much-needed bridge between those of differing faith traditions and cultures."
- Neighboring Greece, an overwhelmingly Orthodox country, said Turkey risked opening up a "huge emotional chasm" with Christian countries if it converts a building which was central to the Greek-speaking Byzantine empire and Orthodox church.
- Turkey has criticized what it says is foreign interference. "This is a matter of national sovereignty," Turkish Foreign Minister Mevlut Cavusoglu said. "What is important is what the Turkish people want."