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Turkey's Erdogan orders Hagia Sophia mosque conversion study: Report

The Istanbul landmark was built as a Greek Orthodox church, became a mosque in 1453 and a museum in 1935
Hagia Sophia's interior is seen as Erdogan addressed the nation on 29 May to celebrate the conquest of Istanbul (Handout)
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Turkey's President Recep Tayyip Erdogan has asked his aides to conduct a comprehensive study on how to convert Istanbul's famous Hagia Sophia landmark, currently a museum, into a mosque, a Turkish newspaper reported on Friday.

During a top party meeting earlier this week, Erdogan noted that Hagia Sophia was reopened as a museum in 1935 after a cabinet decision, and said that it should be up to the nation itself to reverse that decision. The report published by Hurriyet daily said that Erdogan wants to maintain Hagia Sophia as a tourist attraction like the neighbouring Blue Mosque, but open it for Islamic prayers.

One senior ruling Justice and Development Party (AKP) official disputed the report and said that Erdogan had not ordered the study. 

“We were discussing a similar court case before the Council of State that has opened the way for Islamic prayers in Chora Church,” the official said. “There were only expressions of wishes.”

Last year, the Council of State ruled that the Chora Church building in Istanbul was endowed as a mosque under special legal circumstances during the Ottoman Empire, and that it was the state’s responsibility to preserve its intended form as a mosque.

Hagia Sophia was also a foundation property under Mehmet II, the conqueror of Istanbul. 

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Erdogan has been taking several steps to convert the Hagia Sophia into a mosque since last year, when he declared his intention to change its current form during an election rally.

Last week, Turkish government celebrated the 567th anniversary of the Ottoman conquest of Istanbul with an Islamic prayer at the former mosque.

“The recitation of Quran’s Al Fath surah at the Hagia Sophia has been very popular among the voters across the policial parties,” said Abdulkadir Selvi, a columnist with good sources within the government.

Hagia Sophia, a Unesco world heritage site, was originally built as a Greek Orthodox church. It was converted into a mosque after the conquest of Istanbul by Mehmet the Conquerer in 1453, celebrated on 29 May every year.

In 1935, Hagia was converted into a museum by the founder of the Republic of Turkey, Mustafa Kemal Ataturk, as part of his secularist reforms.

Religious conservatives have long called for the conversion of the building back into a mosque, a move  Erdogan has increasingly hinted at in recent years.

Greek officials have in the past accused the Turkish president of using Hagia Sophia as an electoral ploy to lure voters to his party.

The Greek Orthodox church traces its history to the Byzantine empire and its Patriarch is still based in Istanbul, which was formerly known as Constantinople.