ANKARA, Turkey – The Turkish government on Friday officially converted a former Byzantine church into a mosque, a move a month after it garnered praise from worshipers and international opposition for similarly transforming the famous Hagia Sophia in ‘Istanbul in a Muslim house of prayer.
A decision by President Recep Tayyip Erdogan, published in the country’s Official Gazette, said that the Church of St. Savior in Istanbul Chora, known as Kariye in Turkish, was handed over to the Turkish religious authority, this which would open the structure to Muslim prayers.
Like the Hagia Sophia, which was a church for centuries and then a mosque for centuries more, had functioned as a museum for decades before Erdogan ordered its restoration as a mosque. It was not immediately clear when the first prayers would take place there.
The church, located near the ancient city walls, is famous for its elaborate mosaics and frescoes. It dates from the 4th century, although the building took its present form in the 11th and 12th centuries.
The structure served as a mosque during Ottoman rule before being turned into a museum in 1945. A court ruling last year overturned the building’s status as a museum, paving the way for Friday’s ruling.
And as with Hagia Sophia, the decision to turn the Chora into a mosque is seen as aimed at solidifying the conservative and religious support base for Erdogan’s ruling party at a time when its popularity is waning amid an economic downturn.
The Greek Foreign Ministry strongly condemned the move, saying the Turkish authorities “once again brutally insult the character” of another UN World Heritage site.
“It is a provocation against all believers,” the Greek ministry said in a statement. “We urge Turkey to return to the 21st century and to mutual respect, dialogue and understanding between civilizations.”
Elpidophoros, the Greek Orthodox Archbishop of America, wrote on Twitter: “After the tragic transgression with Hagia Sophia, now the Monastery of Chora, this exquisite offering of Byzantine culture to the world!
HAGIA SOPHIA WELCOMES THE FIRST PRAYER SINCE THE REOPENING, 86 YEARS AFTER ITS CONVERSION TO A MUSEUM
Several Istanbul residents rushed to the building on Friday, some hoping to offer prayers there, Turkish national agency Anadolu reported.
“Like the Hagia Sophia, it is an important mosque for Muslims,” the agency said, quoting Istanbul resident Cuma Er. “We came here to pray after learning of the decision. But we were told he was not yet open to prayer. We are waiting for the opening. ”
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Last month, Erdogan joined hundreds of worshipers for the first Muslim prayers at Hagia Sophia in 86 years, dismissing international criticism and calling for the monument to be kept as a museum in recognition of Istanbul’s multi-faith heritage. No less than 350,000 people took part in prayers outside the structure.