Turkey’s top court has ruled that the conversion of the Hagia Sophia to a museum under Mustafa Kemal Ataturk, founder of the modern secular Turkish state, was illegal. Immediately after this verdict, President Erdogan announced that it would now be reconverted into a mosque and opened for worship.
Call to prayer from the Hagia Sophia, hours after it was converted into a mosque pic.twitter.com/dqyUQ16q1Y
— Piotr Zalewski (@p_zalewski) July 10, 2020
Turkey’s top administrative court, the Council of State, held that “the cabinet decision in 1934 that ended its use as a mosque and defined it as a museum did not comply with laws” and that “the settlement deed allocated it as a mosque and its use outside this character is not possible legally”.
Hagia Sophia was first constructed as a cathedral in the Christian Byzantine Empire. It remained a church for 900 years but was converted into a mosque after the Ottoman conquest of Constantinople in 1453.
The association which brought forth this court case believes that the Hagia Sophia building is thus the property of the Ottoman leader who in 1453 turned the Byzantine church, into a mosque. Some groups in Turkey support its status as a mosque since they believe that this reflects the Muslim-majoritarian character of the country.
In 1935, in the early days of the modern secular Turkish state under Mustafa Kemal Ataturk, it became a museum.
The structure is nearly 1,500 years old and dates back to the 6th century. It is a UNESCO World Heritage Site and is of great significance to Christians and Muslims. The monument is now to be under the management of the Religious Affairs Directorate, which will open it for worship.
This move has been criticized by the United States, Greece, and the Russian Orthodox Church, among others, who had advised Turkey to leave the building as a museum. The Russian Orthodox Church believes that this decision to make it a mosque could prove to be more divisive. Earlier, Ecumenical Patriarch Bartholomew, the spiritual leader of over 300 million Orthodox Christians around the world, stated that converting the historical monument into a mosque ‘would disappoint Christians and would “fracture” East and West’.
UNESCO said its World Heritage Committee would review Hagia Sophia’s status, saying it was “regrettable that the Turkish decision was not the subject of dialog nor notification beforehand”.
“UNESCO calls on the Turkish authorities to open a dialog 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,” the United Nation’s cultural body said in a statement.