Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan has rejected international condemnation over the decision to change the status of Istanbul’s landmark Hagia Sophia from a museum to a mosque, saying it represented his country’s will to use its “sovereign rights”.
In the past, he has repeatedly called for the stunning building to be renamed as a mosque and in 2018, he recited a verse from the Quran at Hagia Sophia.
“Those who do not take a step against Islamophobia in their own countries … attack Turkey’s will to use its sovereign rights,” Erdogan said at a ceremony he attended via video-conference on Saturday.
The colossal Hagia Sophia was built 1,500 years ago as an Orthodox Christian cathedral and was converted into a mosque after the Ottomans conquered Constantinople, now Istanbul, in 1453. The secular Turkish government decided in 1934 to make it a museum.
Erdogan on Friday formally converted the building back into a mosque and declared it open for Muslim worship, hours after a high court annulled the 1934 decision turning it into a museum. He said Muslim prayers would begin at the UNESCO World Heritage Site on July 24.
The president went ahead with the plan despite appeals from NATO ally the United States and from Russia, with which Ankara has forged close relations in recent years.
Greece swiftly condemned the move as a provocation, France deplored it while the US also expressed disappointment.
Russia’s Deputy Foreign Minister Alexander Grushko on Saturday said Moscow regretted the decision.
“The cathedral is on Turkey’s territory, but it is without question everybody’s heritage,” he told the Interfax news agency.
The World Council of Churches wrote to Erdogan expressing “grief and dismay” over the move and urged him to reverse his decision.
As a World Heritage museum, “Hagia Sophia has been a place of openness, encounter and inspiration for people from all nations,” interim secretary-general Ioan Sauca said in the letter released on Saturday.
Sauca said the museum status had been “a powerful expression” of Turkey’s commitment to inclusion and secularism.
The influential bishop Hilarion, who heads the Russian Orthodox Church’s department for external church relations, also expressed his sorrow.
“It is a blow to global Christianity … For us [Hagia Sophia] remains a cathedral dedicated to the Saviour,” he told state-controlled TV Rossiya24 late on Friday.
But Ozgur Unluhisarcikli, Ankara director of the German Marshall Fund, told AFP the move would win hearts and minds at home as most Turks “would favour such a decision for religious or nationalist sentiments.
“This is a debate president Erdogan cannot lose and the opposition cannot win. As a matter of fact, this issue also has the potential to disunite the opposition parties.”
Erdogan’s nationalist ally Devlet Bahceli welcomed the decision, saying that reopening Hagia Sophia to Muslim worship “has long been our desire”.
Police erect barriers
On Saturday, police had put up barriers around Hagia Sophia.
“We wanted to come and visit Istanbul and the Hagia Sophia museum but unfortunately we realised that from today it is closed,” said Renato Daleo, a tourist from Italy.
Ksennia Bessonova, a Russian living in Istanbul flanked by her 16-month-old daughter and her husband, said they had also wanted to visit. “It was our little dream because since our daughter was born we were not able to come and here we go,” she said.
She hoped the authorities would not change anything inside.
“From what our friends and family were telling us it was something special and we wanted to feel the same. At the moment I am not sure what to expect but I feel sad in a way.”
On Friday, Erdogan gave assurances that Hagia Sophia would be open to all visitors, including non-Muslims.
“The Hagia Sophia’s doors will remain open to visitors from all around the world,” his press aide Fahrettin Altun tweeted on Saturday.
“People of all religious denominations are welcome and encouraged to visit it – just as they have been able to visit other mosques, including the Blue Mosque.”