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The New Arab Staff

Thousands gather at Hagia Sophia for first Muslim prayers in 86 years

Thousands gathered for prayers outside the Hagia Sophia [Getty]

Date of publication: 24 July, 2020

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Thousands of people gathered for worship at the Hagia Sophia in Istanbul as it controversially reopened as a mosque after being used as a museum for 86 years.

Several thousand Muslim worshippers gathered on Friday at Istanbul’s landmark Hagia Sophia on Friday to take part in the first prayers in 86 years at an iconic building that once was a cathedral, then a mosque, then a museum before its reconversion to a Muslim place of worship.

Despite the coronavirus pandemic, tight crowds formed on Friday morning around the former cathedral for the prayer scheduled for around 1pm local time (1000 GMT). Many of the thousands gathered travelled from across Turkey and some camped near the building overnight.

A festive mood prevailed outside as people waited to be let in.

Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan read from the Quran before prayers started inside the sixth-century structure as he fulfilled what he has described as the “dream of our youth” anchored in Turkey's Islamic movement. More than 500 dignitaries, including Devlet Bahceli, the leader of the Nationalist Movement Party (MHP), also attended the prayers.

Orthodox church leaders in Greece and the United States, meanwhile, were scheduled to observe “a day of mourning” over the inaugural prayers.

Court ruling

Brushing aside international criticism, Erdogan issued a decree restoring the iconic building as a mosque earlier this month, shortly after Turkey’s highest administrative court, the Council of State, ruled that the Hagia Sophia had been illegally made into a museum more than eight decades ago.

The Council of State said that the Hagia Sophia had been registered as a mosque in its property deeds. The structure has since been renamed “The Grand Hagia Sophia Mosque.”

Read more: Hagia Sophia conversion plan comes at testing times for Turkey's Erdogan

The move sparked dismay in Greece, the United States and among Christian churches who had called on Erdogan to maintain it as a museum. Pope Francis expressed his sadness.

Built by the Byzantine Emperor Justinian in 537, Hagia Sophia was turned into a mosque in 1453 by Mehmet II, the Ottoman conqueror of Istanbul after he purchased it from the Orthodox Church. He later added four minarets to the structure. Mustafa Kemal Ataturk, the founding leader of the secular Turkish republic converted the structure into a museum in 1934.

The Hagia Sophia is one of the most visited buildings in Istanbul and was declared a UNESCO World Heritage Site in 1985. Some 3.8 million tourists visited the Hagia Sophia last year.

Greatest dream’

Although an annex to the Hagia Sophia, the Sultan’s Pavilion, has been open to prayers since the 1990s, religious and nationalist groups in Turkey have long yearned for the nearly 1,500-year-old edifice, which they regard as Muhammad al-Fatih’s legacy, to be reverted into a mosque.

The Turkish Religious Affairs Directorate, known as Diyanet, appointed three imams and five muezzins for the Hagia Sophia last week. One of the imams, Mehmet Bonyukalin, is a professor at the Religious Sciences Department of Marmara University and he was appointed in line with the Ottoman tradition of giving the leadership of the Hagia Sophia Mosque to renowned scholars.

“This is Hagia Sophia breaking away from its captivity chains. It was the greatest dream of our youth,” Erdogan said last week. “It was the yearning of our people and it has been accomplished.” Erdogan also described its conversion into a museum by the republic’s founding leaders as a mistake that is being rectified.

The reopening of Hagia Sophia as a mosque took place on the 97th anniversary of the signing of the Treaty of Lausanne, under which the Allied powers of World War I recognized the modern-day boundaries of the secular Turkish Republic which replaced the Ottoman Empire. Erdogan has called for the treaty’s revision in the past.

The significance of the date was not lost on Turkish observers. Writing in the Sabah newspaper, journalist Okan Muderrisoglu said that the reopening meant that “Istanbul would be Turkish forever” and was a message to “those who tried to separate Ottoman heritage from the Turkish Republic”.

In New York, the Greek Orthodox Archdiocese of America, called the inaugural prayers a “cultural and spiritual misappropriation and a violation of all standards of religious harmony and mutual respect.” It called on the faithful to observe a day "of mourning and of manifest grief.”

Archbishop Elpidophoros of America held a meeting with U.S. President Donald Trump and Vice President Mike Pence in Washington on Thursday to discuss concerns over the reconversion.

Agencies contributed to this report.

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