A Turkish court said on Friday it annulled a 1934 government decree turning Istanbul’s Hagia Sophia into a museum, ruling it was unlawful and paving the way for the building’s conversion back into a mosque despite international warnings against such a move.
President Recep Tayyip Erdogan, who has championed Islam and religious observance during his 17-year rule, supported the Hagia Sophia campaign, saying Muslims should be able to pray there again.
Erdogan had proposed restoring the mosque status of the UNESCO World Heritage Site, a focal point of both the Christian Byzantine and Muslim Ottoman empires and now one of the most visited monuments in Turkey.
“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, Turkey’s top administrative court, 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.”
Hagia Sophia is nearly 1,500 years old and served as one of the most exalted seats of Christian and then Muslim worship in the world.
The association that brought the court case, the latest in a 16-year legal battle, said Hagia Sophia was the property of Sultan Mehmet, the Ottoman leader who captured the city in 1453 and turned the already 900-year-old Byzantine church into a mosque.
Erdogan acted quickly after the ruling, signing and tweeting a decree that declared Hagia Sophia open to Muslim worship. He said the first prayers inside could take place on July 24.
“The decision was taken to hand over the management of the Ayasofya Mosque … to the Religious Affairs Directorate and open it for worship,” the decision signed by Erdogan said.
Hundreds of people gathered near Hagia Sophia celebrating the ruling. “Those who built this did it to worship God as well,” said Osman Sarihan, a teacher.
“Thank God today, it reverted to its main purpose. Today, God will be worshipped in this mosque.”
In parliament in Ankara, AK Party members stood and applauded after Erdogan’s decree was read aloud.
UNESCO to conduct review
UNESCO said on Friday its world heritage committee would review Hagia Sophia’s status. The United Nations agency said the decision raised questions about the impact on its universal value as a site of importance transcending borders and generations, which is necessary to be included on its coveted list of World Heritage sites.
Countries must notify the UN’s cultural body of any changes in the status of a site, triggering a review by its heritage committee, it said in a statement.
“It is regrettable that the Turkish decision was not the subject of dialogue nor notification beforehand,” the statement said. “UNESCO calls on the Turkish authorities to open a dialogue without delay in order to avoid a step back from the universal value of this exceptional heritage whose preservation will be reviewed by the World Heritage Committee in its next session.”
Outside Turkey, the prospect of change has raised alarm.
Ecumenical Patriarch Bartholomew, spiritual head of 300 million Orthodox Christians, said altering the status of Hagia Sophia would fracture Eastern and Western worlds, while Greek Orthodox leaders and Russia’s Orthodox church have also criticized the potential move.
The association committed to making Hagia Sophia a mosque again has pressed Turkish courts several times in the years-long fight to annul Ataturk’s decree.
The association even suggested that the president’s signature on the document was forged. That argument was based on a discrepancy in Ataturk’s signature on the edict, passed around the same time that he assumed his surname, from his signature on subsequent documents.