Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan on Friday formally reconverted Istanbul’s sixth-century iconic Hagia Sophia into a mosque and declared it open to Muslim worship, hours after a high court annulled a 1934 decision that had turned it into a museum.

The decision to reconvert Hagia Sophia — a former cathedral that was turned into a mosque after Istanbul’s conquest by the Ottoman Empire and had served as a museum for 86 years — sparked deep dismay among Orthodox Christians, says the Times of Israel.

Erdogan has demanded that the the hugely symbolic world heritage site should be turned back into a mosque despite widespread international criticism, including from the United States and Orthodox Christian leaders. The move could also deepen tensions with neighboring Greece.

Cypriot Foreign Minister Nikos Christodoulides, a Greek Cypriot, posted on his official Twitter account that Cyprus “strongly condemns Turkey’s actions on Hagia Sophia in its effort to distract domestic opinion and calls on Turkey to respect its international obligations.”

Christodoulides said Turkey’s “escalating, flagrant violation of its international obligations is manifested in its decision to alter the designation of Hagia Sophia, a world heritage site that is a universal symbol of the Orthodox faith.”

Erdogan was scheduled to deliver an address to the nation later on Friday.

Built under Byzantine Emperor Justinian, Hagia Sophia was the main seat of the Eastern Orthodox church for centuries, where emperors were crowned amidst ornate marble and mosaic decorations.

Four minarets were added to the terracotta-hued structure with cascading domes and the building was turned into an imperial mosque following the 1453 Ottoman conquest of Constantinople — the city that is now Istanbul.

The building opened its doors as a museum in 1935, a year after the Council of Ministers’ decision.

Mosaics depicting Jesus, Mary and Christian saints that were plastered over in line with Islamic rules were uncovered through arduous restoration work for the museum. Hagia Sophia was the most popular museum in Turkey last year, drawing more than 3.7 million visitors.

News reports have said the conversion could occur in time for prayers on July 15, when Turkey marks the quashing of a coup attempt in 2016.

Source: Times of Israel

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