A Muslim woman holds a placard depicting President Tayyip Erdogan as people gather in front of the Hagia Sophia mosque in Istanbul, Turkey, on Friday. Reuters
The world-famous Hagia Sophia museum in Istanbul — originally founded as a cathedral — has been turned back into a mosque.
Turkey's President Recep Tayyip Erdogan announced the decision after a court annulled the site's museum status, the BBC reported on Friday.
His declaration came after a top Turkish court revoked the sixth-century Byzantine monument's status as a museum, clearing the way for it to be turned back into a mosque.
In an address to the nation, Erdogan said the first Muslim prayers at the Hagia Sophia would be performed on July 24.
Faithful pray outside the Hagia Sophia mosque Istanbul on Friday. AFP
"God willing, we will perform Friday prayers all together on July 24 and reopen Hagia Sophia to worshipping," he said, assuring that it would open its door to all, including non-Muslims.
"Like all our mosques, the doors of Hagia Sophia will be wide open to locals and foreigners, Muslims and non-Muslims."
The Unesco World Heritage site in historic Istanbul, a magnet for tourists worldwide, was first constructed as a cathedral in the Christian Byzantine Empire but was converted into a mosque after the Ottoman conquest of Constantinople in 1453.
In 1934 it became a museum and is now a Unesco World Heritage site.
The proposal prompted criticism from religious and political leaders worldwide.
Defending the decision, Erdogan stressed that the country had exercised its sovereign right in converting it back to a mosque.
He told a press conference the first Muslim prayers would be held inside the building on 24 July.
"Like all our mosques, the doors of Hagia Sophia will be wide open to locals and foreigners, Muslims and non-Muslims," he added.
Shortly after the announcement, the first call to prayer was recited at Hagia Sophia and was broadcast on all of Turkey's main news channels. The cultural site's social media channels have now been taken down.
Unesco has said it "deeply regrets" the decision to turn the museum into a mosque and called on the Turkish authorities to "open a dialogue without delay."
The organisation had urged Turkey not to change its status without discussion.
The head of the Eastern Orthodox Church has condemned the move, as has Greece - home to many millions of Orthodox followers.
Culture Minister Lina Mendoni said it was an "open provocation to the civilised world".
"The nationalism displayed by President Erdogan... takes his country back six centuries," she said in a statement.
The court ruling "absolutely confirms that there is no independent justice" in Turkey, she added.
But the Council of State, Turkey's top administrative court, said in its ruling on Friday: "It was concluded that the settlement deed allocated it as a mosque and its use outside this character is not possible legally."
Women hold a Turkish national flag as people gather outside the Hagia Sophia mosque. AFP
"The cabinet decision in 1934 that ended its use as a mosque and defined it as a museum did not comply with laws," it said.
The Church in Russia, home to the world's largest Orthodox Christian community, immediately expressed regret that the Turkish court had not taken its concerns into account when ruling on Hagia Sophia.
It said the decision could lead to even greater divisions.
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