Erdogan recites Muslim prayer at Hagia Sophia, sparks controversy
Turkey's president recited an Islamic prayer on Saturday at th Hagia Sophia, an Istanbul museum that has become both a symbol of interfaith and diplomatic tensions.
President Recep Tayyip Erdogan called on guests to recite the first verse of the Quran. The Turkish leader dedicated the prayer to the "souls of all who left us this work as inheritance, especially Istanbul's conqueror".
The Hagia Sophia was first built as a Greek Orthodox church in the 6th century and became the seat of this Eastern Branch of Christianity. It was then turned into a mosque following the Ottoman conquest of the city in 1453.
The Hagia Sophia was once the largest mosque in the world.
Mustafa Kemal Ataturk, the modern founder of Turkey who secularised the country, made the structure a museum in 1935. However, Erdogan's Islamic-leaning government has discussed turning the building back into a mosque.
Many conservative Muslims view the Hagia Sophia as a symbol of Islamic conquest.
In recent years, thousands of Turks have prayed outside the building to demand it be restored as a mosque. In 2015, a cleric recited from the Quran inside the building, a UNESCO World Heritage site, for the first time in 85 years.
The following year, Turkey's religious authority began hosting and broadcasting religious readings during the holy month of Ramadan and the call to prayer was recited to mark the first revelation of the Quran to Prophet Mohammed.
Erdogan said on Saturday that it was "difficult and emotional" to be speaking at the Hagia Sophia, which he described as "magnificent and holy". He was speaking at the opening of the first Yeditepe Biennial focusing on classical Turkish art.
Erdogan's recital comes a day before Easter Sunday, one of the holiest days in Christianity.
Greece has previously protested the Turkish government's religious use of the venue, last summer calling it an "affront to the international community".
Istanbul, which was formerly known as Constantinople, was the site of the Greek-speaking Byzantine Empire.
Many Western officials have previously called on Turkey to preserve the structure as a museum to reflect its complex religious history.
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