A Turkish court has ruled the 1934 conversion of Hagia Sophia into a museum illegal, thus paving the way for it to be turned into a mosque.
Shortly after the ruling, President Erdogan signed a decree opening Istanbul’s most famous building for prayers and transferring the monument to the presidency of religious affairs.
The case had been brought by a Turkish NGO seeking an annulment of the decision to convert Hagia Sophia into a museum after being a mosque for nearly 500 years, a move backed by Turkey’s President Recep Tayyip Erdogan.
The Council of State ruled that since the Hagia Sophia is owned by the Fatih Sultan Mehmet Han Foundation, its status on the deed is listed as a mosque and cannot be changed. The council reasoned Ottoman Sultan Mehmet II, who conquered Istanbul, deemed the property to be used by the public as a mosque without any fees and was not within the jurisdiction of the Parliament or a ministry council.
The Council of Ministers’ decision to turn the mosque into a museum was made in 1934, in the early years of the modern secular Turkish state founded by Mustafa Kemal Ataturk.
A state attorney, meanwhile, argued that the 1934 decision was legal.
He recommended the request be rejected, arguing that a decision on restoring the structure’s Islamic heritage was up to the government, the agency said.
Ibrahim Kalin, Turkey’s presidential spokesperson, said this week that reopening Istanbul’s Hagia Sophia for prayers will not deprive it of its identity, as it will always belong to the world’s historical heritage. Such a move will not hinder people visiting it, he said and Turkey will still preserve Christian icons there.
Unesco has said it “deeply regrets” the decision to turn the museum into a mosque. The organisation had urged Turkey not to change its status without discussion.
The head of the Eastern Orthodox Church has condemned the move, as has Greece – home to many millions of Orthodox followers. Culture Minister Lina Mendoni said it was an “open provocation to the civilised world”.
“The nationalism displayed by President Erdogan… takes his country back six centuries,” she said in a statement. The court ruling “absolutely confirms that there is no independent justice” in Turkey, she added.
Erdogan last week said that accusations against the country about Hagia Sophia directly target its sovereignty, adding that Turkey will always protect the rights of Muslims and the minorities living in the country.
Hagia Sophia was first constructed as a church during the Christian Byzantine Empire but was converted into a mosque after the Ottoman conquest of Constantinople in 1453.
Turning it into a museum was a key reform of the post-Ottoman authorities under the modern republic’s founder Mustafa Kemal Ataturk.
But calls for it to serve again as a mosque have sparked tensions between the historic foes and uneasy NATO allies Turkey and Greece.
Russia, which has become an increasingly important partner of Turkey in recent years, has also urged against altering its status.
Prophet Muhammad peace be upon him prophecised the Muslim conquest of Constantinople in a famous hadith where he said:
“Verily you [Muslims] shall conquer Constantinople. What a wonderful leader will her leader be, and what a wonderful army will that army be!” [Mentioned in Musnad Ahmad, Al Hakim, al Jami’ al Saghir]