A Turkish court ruling has paved the way for Istanbul's crowning architectural jewel, the Hagia Sophia museum, to be turned back into a mosque - a politically charged decision that has drawn worldwide criticism but delighted the president Recep Tayyip Erdoğan's conservative base.
Built in 537 AD during the reign of emperor Justinian, the Hagia Sophia has twice been burned down in riots. Following the Fall of Constantinopole, Hagia Sophia was converted into a mosque. The 6th-century building is now at the center of a heated debate between conservative groups who want it to be reconverted into a mosque and those who believe the World Heritage site should remain a museum.
"There may be many mosques but Hagia Sophia is unique in its historic value", he said. In 1935, Turkey's secular leader Ataturk decided to make the Hagia Sophia a museum and ever since it has been a top tourist attraction.
The U.S. State Department, which had urged Turkey to maintain the building as a museum, said in a statement it was "disappointed" by the decision but looked forward to hearing the plans "to ensure it remains accessible without impediment for all". "It is a truly regretful development that the Turkish leadership, after working for the Alliance of Civilizations in 2005, has now taken the decision to reverse course", the prime minister added.
It allowed Turkish President Tayyip Erdogan to sign a decree reverting the building to a mosque and fulfill a promise of his 17-year rule. It has been turned back into a Mosque.
In the run-up to the court's decision, Ankara's global allies and foes alike criticised the impending move.
"Every kind of power disposition regarding Hagia Sophia is also an issue concerning our internal affairs within Turkey's sovereignty rights".
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The president went on to say that Turkey's rights on Hagia Sophia was not any fewer than that of those who built the historical complex almost 1,500 years ago, adding, insisting that Hagia Sophia would remain as a museum would be an equal demand that the Vatican was turned into a museum and closed to worship. The historic site then became a museum in 1935 as part of a decree by modern Turkey's secularist founding father Mustafa Kemal Ataturk.
For the uninitiated, the contentious Hagia Sophia monument is a house of worship located in Turkey's capital, Istanbul, and revered among both the Christian and Muslim communities.
Erdogan has many a time openly expressed his support to turn Hagia Sophia back into a mosque.
It said the decision could lead to even greater divisions.
UNESCO lamented the fact that Erdogan did not consult with the body beforehand, while Patriarch Kirill of the Russian Orthodox Church had previously called the decision "a threat to the entire Christian civilization".
Hagia Sofia is a UNESCO World Heritage Site and part of the "Historic Areas of Istanbul" property which entails "a number of legal commitments and obligations", the United Nations agency warned on Friday ahead of the ruling.
"Symbolically, such a decision would appear as the culminating point for Turkey which has systematically gone on the offensive in all theatres of regional conflicts: Syria, Iraq, Libya and eastern Mediterranean", he said.