A Turkish court unanimously ruled on Friday that a past cabinet decision that made Istanbul’s Hagia Sophia a museum is null and void, opening the way for the government to convert the ancient building into a mosque once again.
The verdict came after the representatives of an association sued the government earlier this year for converting the Hagia Sophia into a museum in the 1930s through a cabinet decision, which was signed by Mustafa Kemal Ataturk, the founder of modern Turkey.
President Recep Tayyip Erdogan will address the nation on the issue through a television broadcast later on Friday.
The association, called the Permanent Foundations and Service to Historical Artefacts and the Environment, argued that the building was endowed as a mosque under Mehmed II, the conqueror of Istanbul, who owned the property. Previously the building had served as a Christian cathedral, and was built by the Byzantine Emperor Justinian II in the 6th century.
The Council of State’s 10th circle said in the judgement that the Ottoman Sultan Mehmed II registered Hagia Sophia as an endowment that could be only used as a mosque.
“The property belongs to the Fatih Sultan Mehmet Foundation. The charter of the foundation presents the building as a mosque for the public use and it has been registered as a mosque in the land registry,” the judgement said.
“The state has the responsibility to ensure the use of the endowment as the donor wishes. The charters also make it impossible to utilise the building other than a mosque. Therefore the cabinet decision isn’t consistent with the rule of law and it is uanimously cancelled.”
Since last year, Erdogan has backed the idea of returning the building’s mosque status in several speeches, in an attempt to satisfy his conservative Muslim base, which has always seen Ataturk’s decision as catastrophic.
The decision to reverse its designation could be taken simply by Erdogan. However, intense international pressure – from Washington to Moscow – to maintain the building as a museum has seen his government prefer to share the burden of the decision with the judiciary.
Following the court’s ruling, Erdogan’s government still needs to take the actual steps to make the necessary changes in the building to open it for public prayers.
Hours before the court issued the verdict, UNESCO released a statement, warning the Turkish government that it has certain responsibilities for the building under its World Heritage status.
“This inscription entails a number of legal commitments and obligations,” the statement said.
“Thus, a state must ensure that no modification is made to the outstanding universal value of the property inscribed on its territory. Any modification requires prior notification by the state concerned to UNESCO and then, if necessary, examination by the World Heritage Committee.”
The government intends to preserve the the building’s valuable frescos and mosaics by using a curtain system to veil them during the time of prayers. Islam bans iconography in the places of worship.
Some other religious experts, including the former head of Islamic authority in Turkey, said that the building could be used as a mosque without any amendments because the mosaics were placed too high and the worshippers wouldn’t be able to see them.
Source: Middle East Eye