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Hagia Sophia: Erdogan signs order to convert museum into mosque

Historic attraction set to be reassigned despite international pressure for the ex-Byzantine cathedral to remain a museum
A man waves a Turkish Flag in front of the Hagia Sophia, or Ayasofya, after a court decision that paves the way for it to be converted from a museum back into a mosque, in Istanbul (Reuters)
By Ragip Soylu in Ankara

Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan officially signed a decree to convert Istanbul's Hagia Sophia from a museum into a mosque, following a court ruling on the ancient building earlier Friday.

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A Turkish court unanimously ruled that a past cabinet decision that made the Byzantine-era building a museum is null and void, opening the way for the government to convert it into a mosque once again.

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The verdict came after the representatives of an association sued the government earlier this year for converting the Hagia Sophia, also referred to as Ayasofya, into a museum in the 1930s through a cabinet decision that was signed by Mustafa Kemal Ataturk, the founder of modern Turkey.

Erdogan will address the nation on the issue through a television broadcast on Friday evening.

The move comes amid widespread international condemnation and trepidation. Built in the 6th century as a Christian catherdal, the Hagia Sofia - which is Greek for "Holy Wisdom" - is particularly revered by Orthodox Christians.

Greece's culture minister called the court decision "open provocation to the civilised world," while the Russian Orthodox Church said it received the ruling with sadness. 

Meanwhile, the US State Department 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".

The decree signed by Erdogan to convert the Hagia Sophia
The decree signed by Erdogan to convert the Hagia Sophia

In court, the Permanent Foundations and Service to Historical Artefacts and the Environment argued that the building was endowed as a mosque under Mehmed II, the conqueror of Istanbul, who owned the property.

The Council of State's 10th circle said in the judgement that the Ottoman Sultan Mehmed II registered Hagia Sophia as an endowment that could be only used as a mosque.

'The property belongs to the Fatih Sultan Mehmet Foundation. The charter of the foundation presents the building as a mosque for the public use and it has been registered as a mosque in the land registry'

- Court judgement

"The property belongs to the Fatih Sultan Mehmet Foundation. The charter of the foundation presents the building as a mosque for the public use and it has been registered as a mosque in the land registry," the judgement said.

"The state has the responsibility to ensure the use of the endowment as the donor wishes. The charters also make it impossible to utilise the building other than a mosque. Therefore the cabinet decision isn't consistent with the rule of law and it is unanimously cancelled."  

Since last year, Erdogan has backed the idea of returning the building's mosque status in several speeches, in an attempt to satisfy his conservative Muslim base, which has always seen Ataturk's decision as catastrophic.

The decision to reverse its designation could be taken simply by Erdogan. However, intense international pressure - from Washington to Moscow - to maintain the building as a museum has seen his government prefer to share the burden of the decision with the judiciary.

Hours before the court issued the verdict, Unesco released a statement warning the Turkish government that it has certain responsibilities for the building under its World Heritage status. 

"This inscription entails a number of legal commitments and obligations," the statement said.

"Thus, a state must ensure that no modification is made to the outstanding universal value of the property inscribed on its territory. Any modification requires prior notification by the state concerned to UNESCO and then, if necessary, examination by the World Heritage Committee."

The government intends to preserve the building's valuable frescos and mosaics by using a curtain system to veil them during the time of prayers. Islam bans iconography in places of worship.

Some other religious experts, including the former head of Islamic authority in Turkey, said that the building could be used as a mosque without any amendments because the mosaics were placed too high and the worshippers wouldn't be able to see them.

The Turkish public's feelings about the Hagia Sophia are mixed. Kemal Kilicdaroglu, chairman of the main opposition party, the CHP, said in a statement earlier this week that it would not stand in the way, while other parties have been considerably muted in their criticism of the move. 

Several surveys indicate that the move to convert the Hagia Sophia is popular among citizens across party lines. However, a plurality - 43.8 percent according to the latest poll by Metropoll conducted in June - believes the government is using the issue to distract the public from deteriorating economic conditions.

Under Erdogan, the Turkish government has reconverted four other Byzantine-era churches named Hagia Sophia in the cities of Trabzon, Kirklareli, Iznik and Edirne. 

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