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Turkey Reopens Hagia Sophia to Mark the 567th Anniversary of the Conquest of Constantinople

ANKARA  — Worshippers in Turkey have held their first communal Friday prayers in 74 days after the government reopened some mosques as part of its plans to relax measures in place to fight the coronavirus outbreak.

Prayers were held in the courtyards of selected mosques, to minimize the risk of infection. 

Authorities distributed masks at the entrance to the mosques, sprayed hand sanitizers, and checked temperatures. 

Worshippers were asked to bring their own prayer rugs, but some mosques offered disposable paper rugs which were placed 1.5 meters (yards) apart. 

The partial opening of the mosques follows a slowdown in the confirmed COVID-19 infections and deaths in the country.

Later on Friday, Islamic prayers will also be recited in Istanbul's 6th-century Hagia Sophia — the main cathedral of the Byzantine Empire which was converted into a mosque with the Ottoman conquest of the city, then known as Constantinople, in 1453. The prayers are being held to mark the 567th anniversary of the conquest. 

The Muslim prayers at the Hagia Sophia are highly controversial, hitting at the heart of the country's religious-secular divide. 

In 1935, Mustafa Kemal Ataturk, the Turkish republic's founder, converted the building into a museum that attracts millions of tourists, but some Islamic groups want it reconverted into a mosque. President Recep Tayyip Erdogan, who leads an Islamic-oriented party and has himself recited prayers inside Hagia Sophia, has also spoken about the possibility of turning the domed complex back into a place of worship.

Greece has in the past protested the use of Hagia Sophia, the main seat of the Greek Orthodox church and now a UNESCO World Heritage site, for religious purposes.

The celebrations marking the Muslim conquest of the city kicked off with Erdogan saluting from the balcony of a presidential summer residence, a flotilla of boats sailing past on the Bosporus waterway.

On Thursday, Erdogan announced plans to lift restrictions on movement between cities and reopen restaurants, cafes, sports centers, beaches and museums on June 1.

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