UNESCO urges Turkey to open up a dialogue about its decision to convert the Hagia Sophia into a mosque, saying it “deeply regrets” the move.
Rabat – Turkey’s historic Hagia Sophia museum, founded as a cathedral, has turned back into a mosque. Just over one week following the Council of State’s debate over one of the country’s most significant religious and political symbols, the court annulled the site’s museum status.
The mosque sounded its first call to prayer shortly after the announcement on July 10 and the first Muslim prayers are scheduled to be held inside the Hagia Sophia on July 24.
Since 1934, the government had banned religious services at the Hagia Sophia, reserving the space as a relic of the past under the United Nations Educational, Scientific, and Cultural Organization (UNESCO).
The museum exhibited the site’s 1,488-year-old history — first as an Eastern Orthodox church, invaded and occupied by other Catholics, and then rebuilt as a mosque until Ottoman architects took over.
Islamists have long debated the site’s museum status and protested for its conversion back to a museum. However, leaders worldwide urged Turkey to honor the site’s multicultural past and its current symbol as an interfaith space.
Turkey’s President Recep Tayyip Erdogan announced his support for the museum’s conversion last year during an election rally. Shortly after affirming the mosque’s inauguration, Erdogan noted that the decision was made under the country’s sovereign right.
“Like all our mosques, the doors of Hagia Sophia will be wide open to locals and foreigners, Muslims and non-Muslims,” he said.
Local officials have removed the Hagia Sophia museum social media channels, stripping it of its museum status, which UNESCO says it “deeply regrets.” The international cultural organization called on Turkish authorities to “open a dialogue without delay.”
Other critics such as Greece’s Culture Minister Lina Mendoni said that the move was an “open provocation to the civilized world.”
“The nationalism displayed by President Erdogan… takes his country back six centuries,” she said.
US Secretary of State Mike Pompeo previously warned that the change would sacrifice Hagia Sophia’s ability to “serve humanity as a much-needed bridge between those of differing faith traditions and cultures.”
A spokesperson for the country’s presidency told the state-run Anadolu Agency that converting the museum into a mosque would not prevent visitors from experiencing the space as a world heritage site.