Hagia Sophia welcomes first prayer since reopening, 86 years after conversion to museum

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Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan attended the first prayer service at Hagia Sophia in over 86 years.

Thousands of people from across Turkey gathered to attend the service – the first since Erdogan repealed Hagia Sophia’s status as a museum. The areas outside the building were separated for prayer, quickly filling to capacity.

No less than 350,000 people took part in the prayer, many of whom wore face masks as a precaution during the coronavirus pandemic.

Faithful wait in the historic Sultanahmet district of Istanbul, outside the Byzantine-era Hagia Sophia, on Friday, July 24, 2020.
(Photo AP / Yasin Akgul)

Erdogan began the prayer with a recitation of the Quran, then handed the service to Ali Erbas, who prayed that Muslims would never be “denied” the right to worship at Hagia Sophia again.

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Built almost 1,500 years ago, Hagia Sophia was the first cathedral in the Roman Empire. After a thousand years, the Ottomans converted the structure into a mosque following the sack of Constantinople.

When national hero Mustafa Kemal Atatürk created the modern state of Turkey, he converted the mosque into a museum, a move that was in line with his secular policy for the new country.

Faithful wait in the historic Sultanahmet district of Istanbul, near the Byzantine-era Hagia Sophia, on Friday, July 24, 2020.
(AP)

The decision to reopen the Byzantine structure as a mosque drew criticism from Greece, the United States and Christian Church leaders who called on Erdogan to maintain Hagia Sophia’s museum status, but the president has finalized the move following a High Court ruling.

“It is Hagia Sophia breaking loose from her chains of captivity. It was the biggest dream of our youth, ”Erdogan said last week. “It was the desire of our people and it was accomplished.”

Muslims pray during Friday prayers in Istanbul's historic Sultanahmet district, near Byzantine-era Hagia Sophia in the background, Friday, July 24, 2020.

Muslims pray during Friday prayers in Istanbul’s historic Sultanahmet district, near Byzantine-era Hagia Sophia in the background, Friday, July 24, 2020.
(Photo AP / Yasin Akgul)

Some believe Erdogan pushed through the movement in order to combat its slump in popularity during an economic downturn.

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“This allows him to shift the narrative from economics to culture wars, an area where he has done well in the past by mobilizing his right-wing base,” said Soner Cagaptay, Turkish analyst for the Washington Institute and author of “Erdogan’s Empire, ”told The Associated Press.

Muslims pray during Friday prayers in Istanbul's historic Sultanahmet district, near Byzantine-era Hagia Sophia in the background, Friday, July 24, 2020.

Muslims pray during Friday prayers in Istanbul’s historic Sultanahmet district, near Byzantine-era Hagia Sophia in the background, Friday, July 24, 2020.
(Photo AP / Yasin Akgul)

The move proved popular with the Erdogan base, however: dozens gathered outside the building following the court order last week, and hundreds camped overnight to be ready for the first Friday prayer.

Dozens of worshipers passed a police checkpoint to rush to Hagia Sophia and social distancing practices, in place due to the coronavirus outbreak, have been ignored, Turkish media reported.

Retired teacher Suleyman Karatas said: “God willing, there will remain a mosque. Because Hagia Sophia is the heritage of our ancestor.

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Erdogan’s government promised that the artifacts in Hagia Sophia would remain protected and that the building would still be open for public visits outside of prayer times.

The Associated Press contributed to this report.

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