Constantinople's ancient and historic Aghia Sophia Orthodox cathedral opened for Friday prayers July 24 for the Muslim faithful for the first time in 86 years after being turned into a mosque on the order of President Recep Tayyip Erdogan.
Only 500 people were invited inside because of COVID-19 restrictions, said Religious Affairs Director Ali Erbas, CNN reported, with thousands more outside n the garden and Sultanahmet Square in the old city neighborhood.
Erdogan took part in the first prayers after ignoring international pleas not to convert the cathedral that had been a museum since 1934, on the direction of Mustafa Kemal Ataturk, the founder of modern, secular Turkey, Erdogan overturning that.
It had been a mosque for 481 years since invading Turks in 143 seized the city, which the rest of the world apart from Greece now calls Istanbul, critics saying Erdogan made the move to appease his hard-core ultra-religious constituency.
"We are ending our 86 years of longing today," said one man Sait Colak, referring to the nearly nine decades since Hagia Sophia was declared a museum and ceased to be a place of worship. "Thanks to our president and the court decision today we are going to have our Friday prayers in Hagia Sophia,” Reuters reported.
It has been renamed The Grand Hagia Sophia Mosque, a contradiction in terms, using a word meaning “Saint,” indicating its Christian base but with icons covered over during prayers so Muslims won't have to look at them.
The decision, involving one of the city's most important landmarks and a UNESCO World Heritage site, has been criticized by international religious and political leaders, but Erdogan said he doesn't care what anyone thinks, with most Turks backing him.
The Aghia Sophia was the Roman Empire's first Christian cathedral and is among the best-known Byzantine structures in the world but Erdogan is trying to distance himself from Ataturk's decision to gain favor with his religious base.
Erdogan has positioned himself as a friend of conservative Islamists in Turkey, moving Pope Francis said he was "very saddened" by the building's conversion while Greece's Culture Minister Lina Mendoni said the move was "an open provocation to the entire civilized world."
Turkish officials said when the building isn't being used as a mosque that tourists will be allowed inside – it wasn't said if the icons would still be covered then – and that admission is now free.
Earlier, Erdogan tried to appease critics and said that, "Like all our mosques, its doors will be open to everyone – Muslim or non-Muslim. As the world's common heritage, Hagia Sophia with its new status will keep on embracing everyone in a more sincere way," he said.
"We will be treating every opinion voiced on the international stage with respect. But the way Hagia Sophia will be used falls under Turkey's sovereign rights. We deem every move that goes beyond voicing an opinion a violation of our sovereignty,” he said.
The interior echoed to the sound of Koranic recitations from white-robed clerics, sat on blue carpets freshly laid ahead of the prayers, said Reuters, as Greece's government said it would form a committee to look into doing something, too late for now.