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Ancient Hagia Sofia in Turkey to serve as mosque, Erdogan decrees after court ruling

A Turkish court said on Friday it annulled a 1934 government decree turning Istanbul's Hagia Sophia into a museum, ruling it was unlawful and paving the way for the building's conversion back into a mosque despite international warnings against such a move.

Ruling aligns with president's wishes but has been rued by Orthodox Christians

Turkey's ancient Hagia Sophia, which has been a museum for decades, is now being turned back into a mosque, causing religious and political divisions. 2:00

A Turkish court said on Friday it annulled a 1934 government decree turning Istanbul's Hagia Sophia into a museum, ruling it was unlawful and paving the way for the building's conversion back into a mosque despite international warnings against such a move.

President Recep Tayyip Erdogan, who has championed Islam and religious observance during his 17-year rule, supported the Hagia Sophia campaign, saying Muslims should be able to pray there again.

Erdogan had proposed restoring the mosque status of the UNESCO World Heritage Site, a focal point of both the Christian Byzantine and Muslim Ottoman empires and now one of the most visited monuments in Turkey.

"It was concluded that the settlement deed allocated it as a mosque and its use outside this character is not possible legally," the Council of State, Turkey's top administrative court, said in a ruling.

"The cabinet decision in 1934 that ended its use as a mosque and defined it as a museum did not comply with laws."

WATCH | Sights and sounds from Istanbul's Hagia Sophia:

A Turkish court decision has paved the way for Istanbul's ancient Hagia Sophia to be converted from a museum back into a mosque. 1:04

Hagia Sophia is nearly 1,500 years old and served as one of the most exalted seats of Christian and then Muslim worship in the world.

The association that brought the court case, the latest in a 16-year legal battle, said Hagia Sophia was the property of Sultan Mehmet, the Ottoman leader who captured the city in 1453 and turned the already 900-year-old Byzantine church into a mosque.

Erdogan acted quickly after the ruling, signing and tweeting a decree that declared Hagia Sophia open to Muslim worship. He said the first prayers inside could take place on July 24.

"The decision was taken to hand over the management of the Ayasofya Mosque … to the Religious Affairs Directorate and open it for worship," the decision signed by Erdogan said.

Hundreds of people gathered near Hagia Sophia celebrating the ruling. "Those who built this did it to worship God as well," said Osman Sarihan, a teacher.

"Thank God today, it reverted to its main purpose. Today, God will be worshipped in this mosque."

In parliament in Ankara, AK Party members stood and applauded after Erdogan's decree was read aloud.

UNESCO to conduct review

UNESCO said on Friday its world heritage committee would review Hagia Sophia's status. The United Nations agency said the decision raised questions about the impact on its universal value as a site of importance transcending borders and generations, which is necessary to be included on its coveted list of World Heritage sites.

Countries must notify the UN's cultural body of any changes in the status of a site, triggering a review by its heritage committee, it said in a statement.

A woman gestures in front of the Hagia Sophia or Ayasofya, in Istanbul, after a court decision that paves the way for it to be converted from a museum back into a mosque. (Murad Sezer/Reuters)

"It is regrettable that the Turkish decision was not the subject of dialogue nor notification beforehand," the statement said. "UNESCO calls on the Turkish authorities to open a dialogue 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."

Outside Turkey, the prospect of change has raised alarm.

Ecumenical Patriarch Bartholomew, spiritual head of 300 million Orthodox Christians, said altering the status of Hagia Sophia would fracture Eastern and Western worlds, while Greek Orthodox leaders and Russia's Orthodox church have also criticized the potential move.

Visitors pose for a picture at Hagia Sophia, the UNESCO World Heritage Site, which was a Byzantine cathedral before being converted into a mosque and currently a museum. (Murad Sezer/Reuters)

The Russian Orthodox Church said Friday it regretted that the court did not take its concerns into account when making its ruling and said the decision could lead to even greater divisions, the TASS news agency reported.

U.S. Secretary of State Mike Pompeo previously said any change would diminish its ability "to serve humanity as a much-needed bridge between those of differing faith traditions and cultures."

Ataturk signature questioned

Hagia Sophia, or "Divine Wisdom" in Greek, was completed in 537 by Byzantine emperor Justinian.

The vast, domed structure overlooked the Golden Horn harbour and entrance to the Bosphorus from the heart of Constantinople. It was the centre of Orthodox Christianity and remained the world's largest church for centuries.

Hagia Sophia stayed under Byzantine control — except for a brief seizure by Crusaders in the 13th century — until the city was captured by the Muslim forces of the Ottoman Sultan, Mehmet the Conqueror, who converted it into a mosque.

LISTEN | Researcher says making Hagia Sofia a mosque bad for building — and for religious harmony:

Tugba Tanyeri Erdemir, a research associate at the University of Pittsburgh who studies cultural heritage management and historic religious buildings, talks to AIH guest host Nil Köksal about a court ruling that paves the way for Turkey to convert Istanbul's Hagia Sophia from a museum back into a mosque 6:39

The Ottomans built four minarets, covered Hagia Sophia's Christian icons and luminous gold mosaics and installed huge black panels embellished with the names of God, the prophet Muhammad and Muslim caliphs in Arabic calligraphy.

In 1934, Turkey's first president, Mustafa Kemal Ataturk, forging a secular republic out of the defeated Ottoman Empire, converted Hagia Sophia into a museum, now visited by millions of tourists every year.

The intentions of Turkey's modern founder Mustafa Kemal Ataturk, depicted on a banner in the city of Edirne seen in March, have been widely debated during the legal battles over the ancient site. (Marko Djurica/Reuters)

The association committed to making Hagia Sophia a mosque again has pressed Turkish courts several times in the years-long fight to annul Ataturk's decree.

The association even suggested that the president's signature on the document was forged. That argument was based on a discrepancy in Ataturk's signature on the edict, passed around the same time that he assumed his surname, from his signature on subsequent documents.

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