Erdogan leads first Muslim prayer after Hagia Sophia declared a mosque

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ISTANBUL, July 24, 2020 (BSS/AFP) – Turkish President Recep Tayyip
Erdogan on Friday led the first Muslim prayers attended by thousands
in Hagia Sophia since the iconic Istanbul cathedral was
controversially converted back into a mosque.

The UNESCO World Heritage site in historic Istanbul was first built
as a cathedral in the Christian Byzantine Empire but was converted
into a mosque after the Ottoman conquest of Constantinople in 1453.

The Council of State, the highest administrative court, on July 10
unanimously cancelled a 1934 decision by modern Turkey’s founder
Mustafa Kemal Ataturk to turn it into a museum, saying it was
registered as a mosque in its property deeds.

Erdogan then swiftly ordered the building to reopen for Muslim
worship, deeply angering the Christian community and further straining
relations with NATO ally Greece.

He recited a verse from the Koran on Friday while wearing an Islamic
skullcap after earlier recitations from the Muslim holy book in the
morning inside Hagia Sophia.

The sounds of the call to prayer from its four minarets reverberated
around the area and on Turkish television screens.

Erdogan said 350,000 people had taken part in the prayer in and
around Hagia Sophia, but it was not possible to independently verify
the figure.

– ‘Second conquest’ –

The head of the state religious affairs agency, Ali Erbas, later
delivered the Friday sermon inside Hagia Sophia, holding a sword as a
symbol of conquest.

“The reopening of Hagia Sophia… is the return of a sacred place,
which had embraced believers for five centuries, to its original
function,” Erbas told the congregation.

Despite the coronavirus pandemic, tight crowds formed on Friday
morning around the landmark. Several people had spent the night in the
area.

The prayer was also attended by Erdogan’s ally and the leader of
the ultranationalist MHP, Devlet Bahceli, but none of the leaders of
the opposition parties participated.

The two men also visited the tomb of Sultan Mehmet II who conquered
the city in 1453.

One of those attending Friday’s prayer came especially from the
Aegean region of Izmir.

“We see this as the second conquest of Istanbul,” Selahattin
Pamukcu, 33, told AFP.

– ‘Provocation’ –

Experts say Erdogan’s move to reconvert Hagia Sophia is an attempt
to galvanise his conservative and nationalist base amid economic
uncertainty exacerbated by the virus outbreak.

Erdogan’s decision has also undone part of the secular legacy of
Ataturk, who wanted Hagia Sophia as a museum so as to “offer it to
humanity”.

The timing of the first prayer is significant. Friday is the 97th
anniversary of the Treaty of Lausanne, which set modern Turkey’s
borders after years of conflict with Greece and Western powers.
Erdogan, who professes nostalgia for the Ottoman empire, has called
for the treaty’s revision in recent years.

For many Muslims, the reconversion was a landmark event.

“This is the moment when Turkey breaks its chains. Now it can do
whatever it wants, without having to submit to the West,” Selahattin
Aydas, from Germany, said.

But the Friday prayer is set against a backdrop of tense relations
between NATO allies Ankara and Athens, particularly related to Turkish
hydrocarbon exploration in the eastern Mediterranean.

Greece has strongly denounced the conversion of Hagia Sophia back
into a mosque, seeing it as a provocation to the “entire civilised
world”.

“What is happening in (Istanbul) this day is not a show of force,
but proof of weakness,” Greek premier Kyriakos Mitsotakis said in a
statement.

“Especially to us Orthodox Christians, Hagia Sophia today is in our
hearts more than ever. It is where our heart beats.”

– Preservation concerns –

Church bells around Greece pealed at midday on Friday with their
flags at half-mast to protest what the head of the Church of Greece,
Archbishop Ieronymos, has called an “unholy act of defiling” the
former cathedral.

Ankara rejects international criticism in the name of “sovereignty”
and insists tourists will still be able to visit the mosque and see
the mosaics.

Around 3.8 million tourists visited Hagia Sophia last year.

But not everyone was happy. Israfil, who sells carpets in a shop
near Hagia Sophia, was critical of the “sensational manner” in which
the reconversion took place.

“All this show is for political, electoral reasons,” said Israfil
who did not wish to give his full name, adding: “This same crowd won’t
be here next week.”

Some experts are concerned about the speed of the conversion as
turquoise carpet was laid for the faithful to pray.

The Byzantine mosaics, plastered over for centuries when the
building served as a mosque, will be hidden by curtains during prayer
times since Islam bans figurative representations.