Islamic prayers to be held at Istanbul’s Hagia Sophia

Islamic prayers will be held at Istanbul’s Hagia Sophia museum on Friday in honour of Conquest of Istanbul Day, Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan said on Thursday.

At the Hagia Sophia on Friday, the Conquest Sura, a section of the Koran, will be recited and prayers will be held as part of a celebration organised by the Ministry of Culture and Tourism, Erdoğan said in a statement carried by state-run Anadolu news agency.

The Hagia Sophia, originally built as a cathedral of the Eastern Roman Empire in 537, was turned into a mosque following the Ottoman conquest of Istanbul on May 29,1453 and then a museum in 1935.

Over the years, Erdoğan has repeatedly suggested turning the UNESCO World Heritage Site into a mosque again to fulfil a long-standing demand by Turkey’s Islamists, much to Greece’s ire.

“We miss it! But a little more patience. We'll make it together...”, Turkish Presidential Communications Director Fahrettin Altun tweeted, along with a photo of the Hagia Sophia.

“There's a reason they don't just make it a mosque (they absolutely could if they wanted). It's the perfect political football,” Can Okar tweeted, referring to Erdoğan’s government.

The Turkish president’s Thursday announcement came as tensions between Athens and Ankara have flared up in recent months.

Greece boosted its border security in late February when Turkey began to allow thousands of refugees to travel freely toward Europe. Mock dogfights between Greek and Turkish fighter jets have been frequently reported over the Aegean Sea, and Turkey has sent drill ships to areas of the Eastern Mediterranean claimed by Greece and Cyprus.

Okar suggested Erdoğan’s move was more domestically driven.

“There's not much left to rally the base anymore so building an Islamic narrative around the Hagia Sofia is electoral catnip,” he said.

“This is an act of desperation and will lead to no good,” said Elmira Bayrasli, Director of the Globalisation and International Affairs programme at Bard College.

Meanwhile, mosques in Turkey that follow the criteria and guidelines for coronavirus prevention will be reopening from Friday, Turkey’s Religious Affairs Directorate announced on Thursday.