Erdoğan hands disputed Hagia Sophia landmark over to Turkey’s state religious body 

(Updates with Erdoğan's speech, Erdoğan handing administrative control of landmark to Diyanet, reaction, details, background)

Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan handed administrative control of Istanbul’s Hagia Sophia to Turkey’s top state religious body on Friday, shortly after the country’s highest administrative court annulled a 1934 decree that converted the disputed landmark from a mosque to a museum.

Management of the Hagia Sophia will be given to the Directorate of Religious Affairs (Diyanet), Erdoğan decreed in a signed executive order, a copy of which was posted to the president’s official Twitter account.

Hagia Sophia will be free to enter, and its doors will remain open “for all, local and foreign, Muslim and non-Muslim”,  Erdoğan said in a televised speech following the declaration.

Hagia Sophia will be opened for worship officially with Friday prayers on July 24. Until that day, Erdoğan urged people to refrain from visiting the site so as not to interfere with preparations, or from gathering near the mosque for “demonstrations.”

The Turkish president said Christians will be welcome, and will see that the rumours to the contrary are not true.

“We will put forth the best example of how we will carry our ancestors’ legacy into the future,” he said.

Erdoğan called for all to “respect the decision by Turkey’s judiciary and executive bodies”, and said what purpose the Hagia Sophia will be used for is linked to the “sovereign rights of Turkey”.

Hagia Sophia being opened for worship again is “a mere exercise of our right to sovereignty”, and any comment beyond an expression of opinion as a “violation of our independence”, Erdoğan said.

“If there is to be a faith-based discussion today, the topic should not be Hagia Sophia but the Islamophobia and xenophobia that climb to further heights every day around the world,” Erdoğan said.

The Turkish head of state thanked all political parties and their leaders who stood behind Turkey’s decision about its own laws and historic rights, which includes the main opposition Republican People’s Party (CHP), as its leader Kemal Kılıçdaroğlu had announced support for the re-opening but said it was not a point of contention or a priority.

The Cultural and Tourism Ministry on its website changed the landmark's name to "Hagia Sophia Grand Mosque". Meanwhile, crowds cheered outside the Hagia Sophia, chanting "Allahu akbar" ("God is great" in Turkish), according to a video posted by newspaper Yeni Akit.

The decision by the Council of State earlier in the day allowed for further alteration of the status of the UNESCO World Heritage site, originally built as a cathedral of the Eastern Roman Empire in 537 A.D., and constituted a major step for the Turkish government in fulfilling a long-standing demand by Turkish Islamists, much to the protest of the international community.

The 1934 decree cited the Hagia Sophia as the “Hagia Sophia Mosque”, and stipulated that it function as a museum. Friday’s annulment removed the museum function, defaulting the building back to a mosque, and President Erdoğan’s decree has opened the temple for daily Muslim worship again.

The legal battle began in 2005 when the Perpetual Foundations Association to Serve Historic Artefacts and Sites, a Turkish NGO focused solely on the Hagia Sophia, filed a lawsuit to the Council of State, demanding the annulment of the 1934 cabinet decree. The court ruled in 2008 that the use of the Hagia Sophia Mosque as a museum did not violate Turkish law.

The same NGO appealed to the Constitutional Court (AYM), on the grounds that the museum violated its members’ religious freedom. This claim was also rejected, in 2018. 

Before the AYM ruling, in 2016, the NGO appealed to the Council of State again, kickstarting the current process. This appeal was approved, with the Council of State ruling that the allocation of the building as anything other than a mosque would not be permitted as its status was clearly stated as such in its original deed, dating to Ottoman times.

“The society that was designated as the beneficiary cannot be prevented from utilising the rights and the real estate that belongs to the Foundation, which has been protected since ancient times,” the ruling said.

A marvel of architecture and one of the world’s most significant religious sites ever built, the Hagia Sophia was converted into a mosque by Ottoman Sultan Mehmet the Conqueror in 1453 after the conquest of Istanbul, diverging from a tradition of tearing down religious monuments on conquered land, shared by Muslims and Christians alike at the time.

The site kept its designation as a mosque, but was repurposed as a museum in 1935 under the secular Republic of Turkey.

Erdoğan has repeatedly voiced a desire to open it up for daily worship again over the years, to appease his Islamist supporters.

In his speech on Friday, the Turkish president recounted the story of Sultan Mehmet and how he “emphasised the conquest” by shooting one arrow into Hagia Sophia’s great dome, and reciting the first call to prayer himself.

Atop the Hagia Sophia, Sultan Mehmet saw the decrepid state of Istanbul, then-Constantinople, and decided to improve the city to suit his glory, as Erdoğan continued with his story. The sultan also took Orthodox Christians, “marginalised by other sects of Christianity,” under his wings and allowed the Orthodox church to develop.

“With the Conquest, Istanbul was picked back up from where she fell, devastated due to centuries of earthquakes, fires, pillaging and neglect,” Erdoğan said, in a clear parallel to how he speaks of his election as Istanbul’s mayor in 1994.

“Hagia Sophia is the symbol of this process,” he said. “The Turkish people do not have a lesser right over Hagia Sophia than those who first constructed this monument.”

The prospect of the Hagia Sophia’s status change had raised alarm among U.S., French, Russian and Greek officials, as well as Christian Church leaders in Turkey.

Among the first international reactions to the Turkish court's decision came from the Russian Orthodox Church.

"We regret the decision of the Turkish court to turn Hagia Sophia into a mosque" Evrensel quoted the Church as saying in a statement.

"Unfortunately, the voice of the Russian Orthodox Church and other Orthodox churches was not heard. This decision may cause larger disputes."