President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan signed a decree on July 10 opening Istanbul’s Hagia Sophia as a mosque just minutes after Turkey’s Council of State — the highest administrative court in the country — annulled a 1934 government decree that had turned it into a museum.
Erdoğan 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 Affairs Directorate (Diyanet) and reopen it for worship.
Earlier, the Council of State paved the way for the sixth-century structure conversion back into mosque despite international warnings against such a move.
The United States, Greece and church leaders were among those to express concern about changing the status of the huge structure, converted into a museum in the early days of the modern secular Turkish state under Mustafa Kemal Atatürk.
“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 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.
Before the court announced its decision, employees of the Fatih Municipality placed barriers in front of the sixth-century structure.
Erdoğan’s son-in-law Albayrak: Wait for it, Hagia Sophia will be opened to prayers
As Turkey was waiting for the Council of State to release its decision, Finance Minister Berat Albayrak, who is also the son-in-law of Erdoğan, wrote on his Twitter account that Hagia Sophia will be opened for prayers.
“As [legendary poet] Necip Fazıl Kısakürek said 55 years ago: ‘Wait for it, youth!!! Either today or tomorrow Hagia Sophia will be opened!” Albayrak wrote.
Shortly after Albayrak’s message, the top court announced that it revoked the renowned structure’s 85-year-old status as a museum.
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.
Erdoğan threw his weight behind the campaign to convert the building before local elections last year. He was due to speak shortly before 9 p.m. local time, his head of communications said.
In parliament in the capital Ankara, lawmakers from Erdoğan’s ruling Justice and Development Party (AKP) stood and applauded after the decree was read aloud.
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.
Greece says verdict a ‘provocation,’ Russian Orthodox Church says ‘greater divisions’ set to come
The Russian Orthodox Church said it regretted that the court did not take its concerns into account when making its ruling and said the decision could lead to even greater divisions, the TASS news agency reported.
Greece’s culture ministry said the Turkish court’s ruling was an “open provocation” to the civilized world.
“Today’s decision, which came as a result of the political will of President Erdoğan, is an open provocation to the civilized world which recognizes the unique value and ecumenical nature of the monument,” Culture Minister Lina Mendoni said in a written statement.
Previously, Ecumenical Patriarch Bartholomew, the spiritual head of some 300 million Orthodox Christians worldwide and based in Istanbul, said converting it into a mosque would disappoint Christians and would “fracture” East and West.
U.S. Secretary of State Mike Pompeo and Greece had also urged Turkey to maintain the building as a museum.
But Turkish groups have long campaigned for Hagia Sophia’s conversion into a mosque, saying this would better reflect Turkey’s status as an overwhelmingly Muslim country.