In Istanbul, a city famed for its towering minarets and echoing calls to prayer, Islamic prayers on Friday returned to the Hagia Sophia for the first time in almost 90 years.
Wearing a white skull cap, Turkey’s President Recep Tayyip Erdogan led the pre-prayer recital, and for many in the crowd, he was the personal righter of a historic wrong.
“It should never have been turned into a museum,” said Ufuk Tavusbay, 26, who had travelled from Belgium with his younger brother for the opportunity to pray at the mosque. “If you knew what it felt to Muslims, then you’d understand”.
Originally built as a Byzantine cathedral in 537 AD, for centuries the Hagia Sophia was a Greek Orthodox church, though it had a spell as a Roman Catholic cathedral in the 1400s.
Following his conquest of Constantinople in 1453, Ottoman leader Sultan Mehmet the II turned the building into a mosque for the first time. It remained so until 1935.
Then, the Ottoman Empire fell, and in its wake rose Mustafa Kemal Attaturk, with his vision for a secular Turkey. Attaturk designated the building a museum, open to all faiths; an artefact of Turkey’s religious and cultural diversity.
The religious struggle for Turkey’s most famous building was over, or so many thought.
For 86 years, Hagia Sophia was the jewel in Turkey’s tourism industry and a Unesco World Heritage Site. Christians and Muslims from across the world could visit, though there was no organised worship.
That status quo was upended earlier this month when President Erdogan decreed the building would once again open its doors for prayers as a mosque.
Conservatives in the country had long pursued the change, it too played well with Mr Erdogan’s nationalist and religious base, but outside of Turkey, it has drawn fierce criticism.
Christians across the world voiced their anger, and Pope Francis said he was “pained” by the decision, and was urged to intervene by Greece’s president.
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SOURCE: The Telegraph – Gareth Browne