First prayers offered at Hagia Sophia mosque

By: AFP      Published: 01:08 PM, 24 Jul, 2020
First prayers offered at Hagia Sophia mosque

Several thousand people including Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan participated on Friday in the first Muslim prayers at Hagia Sophia since the reconversion of the former cathedral into a mosque.

The prayers come after a July 10 ruling revoked the Byzantine-era building's status as a museum, in place since 1934. Erdogan recited a verse from the Holy Quran before the call to prayer was heard from the four minarets of Hagia Sophia.

Despite the coronavirus pandemic, tight crowds formed on Friday morning in Istanbul. Several people had spent the night in the area.

The UNESCO World Heritage site in historic Istanbul was first built as a cathedral in the Christian Byzantine Empire but was converted into a mosque after the Ottoman conquest of Constantinople in 1453.

The Council of State, the highest administrative court, on July 10 unanimously cancelled a 1934 decision by modern Turkey's founder Mustafa Kemal Ataturk to turn it into a museum, saying it was registered as a mosque in its property deeds.

Erdogan then ordered the building to reopen for Muslim worship, deeply angering the Christian community and further straining relations with NATO ally Greece.

There were Quranic recitations in the morning in Hagia Sophia before the Friday prayers which Erdogan, Turkish officials and foreign dignitaries attended.

Up to 1,000 people prayed inside the building with many more able to pray outside but faced with such a large flow of people, including some not wearing masks, Istanbul Governor Ali Yerlikaya said the spaces around Hagia Sophia were swiftly filled.

- 'Provocation' -

Experts say Erdogan's move to reconvert Hagia Sophia is an attempt to galvanise his conservative and nationalist base amid economic uncertainty exacerbated by the virus outbreak and some polls suggesting his ruling party is losing votes.

Erdogan's decision has also undone part of the secular legacy of Ataturk, who wanted Hagia Sophia as a museum so as to "offer it to humanity".

The timing of the first prayer is significant. Friday is the 97th anniversary of the Treaty of Lausanne, which set modern Turkey's borders after years of conflict with Greece and Western powers.

Erdogan, who professes nostalgia for the Ottoman empire, has called for the treaty's revision in recent years.

In Turkey, Hagia Sophia remains closely associated with the Ottoman conquest of Constantinople by Sultan Mehmet II, known as the Conqueror.

An Ottoman military band was in the building's forecourt on Friday.

Erdogan shared a video on Twitter on Wednesday which featured Muslims from across the Islamic world singing in tribute to Hagia Sophia. "You have always been ours, and we are yours," the Turkish leader wrote.

Greek 'mourns' Hagia Sophia reconversion

Churches around Greece were in "mourning" Friday as Muslim prayers were to be held at Hagia Sophia in Istanbul for the first time in decades, with protests by religious groups due later.

Church bells around the country will peal at midday with their flags at half-mast to protest what the head of the Church of Greece, Archbishop Ieronymos, has called an "unholy act of defiling" the former Byzantine Empire cathedral.

"(Today) is a day of mourning for all of... Christianity," Ieronymos said.

The archbishop said he would hold a special service at the Athens Metropolis in the evening and chant the Akathist Hymn in honour of the Virgin Mary.

According to Greek tradition, the same service was held in Hagia Sophia on the eve of the Byzantine's Empire's fall to the Ottomans in 1453.

Hagia Sophia is "a symbol of our faith and a universal monument of culture," Ieronymos said.

Religious and nationalist groups will hold protests in Athens and Thessaloniki later Friday.

One of the architectural wonders of the world, the UNESCO World Heritage site in Istanbul was the main cathedral of the Byzantine Empire but was converted into a mosque after the Ottoman conquest of Constantinople in 1453.

A top Turkish court revoked the sixth-century monument's status as a museum on July 10.

Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan then ordered the building to reopen for Muslim worship, deeply angering the Christian community and further straining relations with NATO ally Greece.

Erdogan went ahead with the plan despite appeals from the United States and Russia and condemnation by France and Pope Francis.

Greece's culture ministry has called it "a provocation to the civilised world".

Hagia Sophia in 2007 was on a shortlist of global architectural wonders selected by nearly 100 million Internet and telephone voters.