Turkish president Recep Tayyip Erdogan signed an order on Friday allowing the Hagia Sophia to be used as a mosque.
Built in 537 A.D., the Hagia Sophia originally served as a Greek Orthodox cathedral for the Byzantine Empire. When Ottoman Sultan Mehmet II conquered Istanbul in 1453, he converted the Hagia Sophia to a mosque. The building was finally transformed into a museum in 1935 by Kemal Ataturk, founder of the modern Turkish republic.
After signing the Friday decree reverting the structure to a mosque once more, Erdogan wrote on Twitter, “Congratulations.” It is not yet clear if Friday prayers will be open to crowds of people at the site.
In part, the order appeared designed to shore up support for Erdogan among his political base. The leader of Turkey for the past 18 years, he currently faces continued economic turmoil brought by the coronavirus pandemic, and his ruling AKP Party lost control of the city of Istanbul in 2019 after 25 years in power.
Bartholomew, the ecumenical patriarch of Constantinople and leader of Eastern Orthodox Christianity, decried the attempt to turn the Hagia Sophia into a mosque in a sermon last week.
“We consider it as detrimental for Hagia Sophia, which, due to its dedication to the Wisdom of God is a point of encounter and a source of fascination for the faithful of both religions, to become, in the 21st century, a cause of confrontation and conflict,” Bartholomew said. “The Turkish people have the great responsibility and the highest honor to give prominence to the universality of this exquisite monument.”
Erdogan’s order has also caused consternation in Russia.
“Today’s court decision shows that all calls for the need for extreme delicacy in this matter have been ignored,” the spokesman of the Russian Orthodox Church said in a statement. “We have to admit that the concern of millions of Christians was not heard.”
Earlier this month, U.S. secretary of state Mike Pompeo had also urged Erdogan not to convert the building into a mosque.
“We urge the Government of Turkey to continue to maintain the Hagia Sophia as a museum, as an exemplar of its commitment to respect the faith traditions and diverse history that contributed to the Republic of Turkey, and to ensure it remains accessible to all,” Pompeo said in a statement.