The Hagia Sophia in Istanbul had been designated a mosque after several decades functioning as a museum. The popular tourist destination will still be open to travelers and locals, according to the Turkish state.
Following a court decision, Turkey’s president Recep Tayyip Erdogan ordered that the Hagia Sophia would revert to its status as a mosque after operating with museum status since 1935.
An UNESCO World Heritage Site since 1985, Hagia Sophia has been a Greek Orthodox cathedral, a Roman Catholic cathedral, and an Ottoman mosque. It will now be managed by Turkey’s Presidency of Religious Affairs, rather than the Ministry of Culture, CNN reported, and religious services will begin regularly on July 24.
Turkey says that the Christian iconography of the site will be retained and tourists will still be able to visit the architectural marvel.
“Since its status as a museum is changed, we are canceling the entrance fees,” said Erdogan in a speech on July 10, according to the Anadolu news agency. “Like all our mosques, its doors will be open to everyone — Muslim or non-Muslim. As the world's common heritage, Hagia Sophia with its new status will keep on embracing everyone in a more sincere way.”
In response, UNESCO says it “deeply regrets the decision of the Turkish authorities, made without prior discussion, and calls for the universal value of World Heritage to be preserved.” Ernesto Ottone, UNESCO’s Assistant Director-General for Culture, said in a statement, “It is important to avoid any implementing measure, without prior discussion with UNESCO, that would affect physical access to the site, the structure of the buildings, the site’s moveable property, or the site’s management.”
“This decision will inevitably fuel mistrust, provoke renewed division between religious communities and undermine our efforts at dialog and cooperation,” EU foreign policy chief Josep Borrell told reporters in Brussels on Monday after chairing a meeting with national counterparts from the 27-member bloc. “There was a broad support to call on the Turkish authorities to urgently reconsider and reverse this decision.”