Istanbul, Hagia Sophia at sunset

Turkish justice rules that turning Hagia Sophia into a museum was illegal

The historic decision, which annuls the decree that made it a museum in 1934, opens the door to the idea of opening Hagia Sophia to religious worship as a mosque, but it will not prevent tourist visits.

The Council of State made public this Friday its awaited sentence on the legality of the decree that in 1934 transformed Hagia Sophia into a museum, decreeing that such decision was illegal and therefore opening the door to the opening of this historic 15-centuries-old building to religious worship, or its transformation back into a mosque.

In its historic resolution issued on the afternoon of July 10, and which cannot be appealed, the highest administrative body of Turkey annulled the government decree that in 1934, under the presidency of Mustafa Kemal Atatürk, transformed Hagia Sophia -which from the the fall of Constantinople in 1453 had been functioning as a mosque- in a museum.

In its judgement, the State Council pronounces on the appeal filed years ago by an association in Istanbul and justifies its resolution in the fact that Hagia Sophia was in 1934 owned by the Fatih Sultan Mehmet Foundation and was registered for use only as mosque, as it had been operating for almost 5 centuries, adding that actually in 1934 the government lacked the legal power to change its status as a religious building.

As reported by Turkish media this Friday, the final resolution is expected to be published in the Official Gazette of the Republic in the coming days, thus becoming official; however, it is not clear if the current government should issue another decree in this regard if it wants to convert Saint Sophia into a mosque, as several organisations have been demanding for years.

Erdoğan: We protect the rights of Muslims and also of other religions

The debate over a possible change in the status of Hagia Sophia and its conversion back to a mosque has been heated for years but especially in recent months, leading even to the US government to speak out. Criticism of the idea comes from those who believe that the building should continue to be a museum to preserve its historical and non-religious character, appealing to its status as a World Heritage Site.

Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan however reacted last Friday July 3 to the criticism levelled at Turkey over this debate, accusing other countries and lobbies of trying to interfere with Turkey’s national sovereignty.

“We are determined to continue protecting the rights of Muslims, the majority faith of our country, as well as all members of other beliefs and religions,” said Erdoğan, recalling that in Turkey there is full religious freedom and that throughout the country there are 435 churches and synagogues where Christians and Jews pray freely.

“Opening Hagia Sophia to religious worship will not prevent tourists from visiting it”

Likewise, in an interview given on Thursday just one day before the resolution of the Council of State, the spokesman for the Turkish president, Ibrahim Kalın, stressed that the possible reopening of Hagia Sophia to religious worship would not undermine his identity since it will always continue to be part of the world historical heritage, and that will not prevent tourists from continuing to visit it.

Turkey will continue keeping the Christian icons there (in Hagia Sophia), just as our (Ottoman) ancestors preserved all Christian religious values,” Kalın stressed. “All of our major mosques, such as the Blue Mosque, Fatih or Suleymaniye, are open to both visitors and worshippers,” he added, citing the iconic Notre Dame Cathedral in Paris as an example.

“Opening Hagia Sophia to worship will not prevent local or foreign tourists from visiting the place… Therefore it is out of place to speak of a loss of world heritage,” Kalın insisted, referring to the arguments put forward by countries such as Greece to reject the idea of the museum of Hagia Sophia being consecrated again as a mosque.