Hagia Sofia of Istanbul can be converted into a mosque, court rules

A Turkish court on Friday paved the way for the conversion of one of the world's most valuable cultural sites into a Muslim mosque, leading to tensions between the Ankara government and Europe.

Istanbul's decision in 1934 to turn the 6th - century Hagia Sophia into a museum was overturned by Turkey's Supreme Court.

The UNESCO World Heritage Site began its life as a church and later housed a museum under the auspices of Turkish founder Mustafa Kemal Ataturk before it was converted into a mosque in the 15th century.

It is unclear whether Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan will decide when and how the architecturally and historically important building in the mosque will be converted, and if he does, whether it will be structural changes or even new regulations for visitors.

Istanbul is full of architecturally important mosques and churches that attract tourists and loyal people.

Since 1991 worshipers have been allowed to pray in a specific part of the museum. In 2015, a Muslim cleric recited the Qur'an inside Hagia Sofia for the first time because it was designated a museum.

But the move has already angered historians, members of Eastern Orthodox religions and supporters of Western religious freedom. One of the archeological wonders of Istanbul, the place is also a major tourist attraction, and some in the travel industry have expressed concern that it might alienate visitors. The site attracted 3.7 million visitors last year.

The verdict has become a matter of international concern. U.S. Secretary of State Mike Pompeo has asked Ankara to maintain the status of the site as a museum "as an example of its commitment to respecting the faith traditions and diverse history that make up modern Turkey."

"The change in the status of Hagia Sophia is seen by the United States as a legacy of this great building and a rarity in the modern world - to degrade faith traditions and humanity, more cultures are needed to serve as bridges over them," he said in a statement.

Others are concerned that rising nationalism and identity are symbolic of a further deterioration of inter-relationships in politics. For secular Turks, changing the status of Hagia Sofia is another growing example of Islamization under Mr Erdogan and his traditional Justice and Development Party (AKP), which has been the dominant political force in Turkey for almost 18 years.

A few hours before the verdict was announced, UNESCO issued a statement saying, "Effective, comprehensive and equitable participation of society and other stakeholders in property is a necessary condition to preserve the heritage and enhance its uniqueness and importance."

In a speech last year, Mr Erdogan tried to deceive his own supporters, saying it was rare for Turkish loyalists to fill mosques in the country.

Ranking Turkish officials have tried to reassure the world that allowing prayer in this facility will not change its status.

Mr Erdogan's senior adviser, Ibrahim Colin, said on Thursday that "Turkey still upholds all Christian values, just as our forefathers did."

He noted that Notre Dame Cathedral in France is a world-famous place of worship to attract tourists and devotees.

“Opening Hagia Sofia for worship will not prevent local or foreign tourists from visiting this place, so the damage from the World Heritage is not questionable,” he said.

Hazia Sophia, the capital of the Byzantine Empire after the Ottoman occupation in the 15th century, served as an Orthodox Christian cathedral for 1000 years.

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