ISTANBUL (New York Times, AP) — President Recep Tayyip Erdogan issued a decree on Friday, July 10, ordering Hagia Sophia to be opened for Muslim prayers, an action likely to provoke international furor around a World Heritage Site cherished by Christians and Muslims alike for its religious significance, for its stunning structure and as a symbol of conquest.
The presidential decree came minutes after a Turkish court announced that it had revoked Hagia Sophia’s status as a museum, which for the last 80 years had made it a monument of relative harmony and a symbol of the secularism that was part of the foundation of the modern Turkish state.
Built in the sixth century as a cathedral, Hagia Sophia stands as the greatest example of Byzantine Christian architecture in the world. But it has been a source of Christian-Muslim rivalry, having stood at the center of Christendom for nearly a millennium and then, after being conquered, of the Muslim Ottoman Empire, when it was last used as a mosque.
Erdogan’s decree transferred control of the site to the Religious Affairs Directorate, sealing the removal of its museum status and allowing Hagia Sophia to become a working mosque once again.
It was a decision long sought by conservative Muslims in Turkey and beyond, but one which opponents say Erdogan intends to stir his nationalist and religious base as his popularity wanes after 18 years atop Turkish politics.