A former Greek Orthodox cathedral is to open as a functioning mosque following a landmark court ruling in Turkey.
President Recep Erdoğan has long been campaigning for the Hagia Sophia, a former Byzantine-era church and previous mosque, to become a place of worship for capital's majority-Muslim population.
In the ruling by Turkey's highest administrative court, it was decided that the building's status as a world-famous cultural site would be annulled, clearing the path for it to become an Islamic place of worship.
The Hagia Sophia is considered by many to be the most iconic religious buildings in Turkey. It was originally built as the seat of the ecumenical patriarch of Constantinople until the city fell to Ottoman conquest in 1453, at which point it became a mosque. Between 1204 and 1261, it was converted by the Fourth Crusaders to a Roman Catholic cathedral under the Latin Empire.
The Hagia Sophia remained as a mosque until 1934, when it was officially converted into a museum.
The interior of the building is still filled with Christian imagery, prompting many to wonder what will now happen to the precious mosaics and Christ-centered iconography that adorns its walls.
The conversion has been met with fierce criticism from the Greek government and concern from the Eastern Orthodox Church.
Ahead of the ruling, Eastern Orthodox Ecumenical Patriarch Bartholomew of Constantinople lamented the idea of a conversion, saying that “the Turkish people have the great responsibility and honor to make the universality of this wonderful monument shine,” given that the Hagia Sophia is “the symbolic place of encounter, dialogue, solidarity and mutual understanding between Christianity and Islam.”
The building “belongs not only to those who own it at the moment, but to all humanity,” he added.
Furious at the decision, Greek Culture Minister Lina Mendoni added that "the nationalism displayed by President Erdogan...takes his country back six centuries". She argued that the court ruling "absolutely confirms that there is no independent justice" in Turkey.
The Council of State, Turkey's top court, said in its ruling: "It was concluded that the settlement deed allocated it as a mosque and its use outside this character is not possible legally".
"The cabinet decision in 1934 that ended its use as a mosque and defined it as a museum did not comply with laws."
As the protector and curator of the World Heritage List, of which the Hagia Sophia is included, The United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organisation (UNESCO) also expressed concern, releasing a statement noting that "effective, inclusive and equitable participation of communities and other stakeholders concerned by the property is a necessary condition for the preservation of heritage and for the enhancement of its uniqueness and significance."
It added: "This requirement serves the protection and transmission of the outstanding universal value of heritage and is inherent to the spirit of the World Heritage Convention."
Last year, historian and author Dr. Vassilios Meichanetsidis argued to the Greek Times that Erdogan's desire to convert historic Christian landmarks into mosques was “a sign of Islamic conquest and supremacy" that in many ways mirrors the Ottoman period.
He said: “It was widely practised in the times of conquest and throughout the Ottoman period and thus most of the truly superb Byzantine churches were converted into mosques and suffered serious damages.
“In many ways, the conversions of churches into mosques or museums area part of a genocidal process in which a physical genocide of human beings (Greeks, Armenians and Assyrians/Arameans) has turned into a cultural genocide.”
Claire Evans, International Christian Concern's Regional Manager for the Middle East, said, “Christians in Turkey experience discrimination and persecution from all sides, and it is only worsening. This recent ruling is a signpost demonstrating just how far Turkey has transformed into an environment that is hostile toward its Christian history and the continued Christian presence.”
Last week, US Secretary of State Mike Pompeo called on Erdogan to think again: "We urge the Government of Turkey to continue to maintain the Hagia Sophia as a museum, as an exemplar of its commitment to respect the faith traditions and diverse history that contributed to the Republic of Turkey, and to ensure it remains accessible to all,” he said.
In a tweet on 25th June, U.S. Ambassador At Large for Religious Freedom Sam Brownback added: “The Hagia Sophia holds enormous spiritual and cultural significance to billions of believers of different faiths around the world. We call on the government of Turkey to maintain it as a UNESCO World Heritage site and to maintain accessibility to all in its current status as a museum.”
Ahead of the conversion, Numan Kurtulmus, deputy chairman of Erdogan’s political party, insisted that the decision to turn the Hagia into a mosque was Turkey's alone.
"The sole decision-making authority about the status of Hagia Sophia...belongs to Turkey," he told Reuters. "We do not need anyone’s advice or recommendation on our own affairs."