Istanbul : Thousands of Muslim faithful made their way to Istanbul’s landmark Hagia Sophia on Friday to take part in the first prayers in 86 years at the structure that once was one of Christendom’s most significant cathedrals, then a mosque and museum before its reconversion into a Muslim place of worship.
Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan also attended the inaugural prayers inside the sixth-century monument along with around 500 dignitaries, as he fulfills what he has described as the “dream of our youth” anchored in Turkey’s Islamic movement.
Thousands of men and women, including many who traveled from across Turkey, quickly filled segregated areas outside of Hagia Sophia to be part of the first prayers. Several camped near the structure overnight. Dozens of worshippers broke through one police checkpoint to rush toward Hagia Sophia and social distancing practices, in place due to the coronavirus outbreak, were being ignored, Turkish media reported.
During his 17-year rule, Erdogan has championed Islam and religious observance and backed efforts to restore Hagia Sophia’s mosque status. He said Muslims should be able to pray there again and raised the issue – popular with many pious AKP-voting Turks – during local elections last year.
The conversion triggered fierce criticism from church leaders, who said the change to exclusively Muslim worship risked deepening religious divisions. Turkey says the site will remain open for visitors and its Christian artworks protected.
Erdogan has reshaped Turkey’s modern republic, established nearly a century ago by the staunchly secularist Mustafa Kemal Ataturk, lifting a ban on Muslim headscarves in public, promoting religious education and taming Turkey’s powerful military.