A Turkish court has ruled that a decades-old decision to convert the famous Hagia Sofia into a museum was unlawful, opening the door to Ankara’s stated plan of turning the ancient structure back into a mosque.
The court ruled on Friday that the 1934 decree converting the ancient Byzantine cathedral into a museum was not lawful. President Tayyip Erdogan has proposed re-purposing the building as a mosque.
Dating back to the 6th century, the Hagia Sophia is one of the most visited cultural sites in Turkey, as well as a UNESCO World Heritage Site.
UNESCO has expressed concern over Erdogan’s vision for the historic structure, noting in a statement on Friday that the building has a “strong symbolic and universal value.” It called on Turkey to “engage in dialogue” before taking any steps that might impact its universal value.
Erdogan is expected to deliver an address about the court ruling later on Friday.
The Turkish president’s intentions to turn the structure into a mosque have been condemned by leaders of the Russian and Greek Orthodox churches, who have warned that it would be seen as an affront to Christians and create a fracture between East and West. Washington has also urged Turkey to maintain the Hagia Sophia as a museum.
Moscow has also highlighted the cultural significance of the building while acknowledging that the matter was an “internal affair” for Turkey.
Erdogan spokesperson Ibrahim Kalin has said that opening the Hagia Sophia for worship will not prevent local or foreign tourists from visiting the iconic site and that a loss of the structure as a world heritage site “is not in question.”
“Turkey will still preserve the Christian icons there, just like our ancestors preserved all Christian values,” he told the Anadolu Agency on Thursday.
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