Updated at 2:15 p.m. ET
Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan has ordered the Hagia Sophia museum, one of Istanbul’s most famous landmarks, to be converted into a mosque.
He made the announcement Friday, hours after a top court cleared the way for him to make the change.
The Hagia Sophia, a major draw for tourists, has a long and complicated history. The architectural marvel was built as a church by the Byzantines in the 6th century and then converted to a mosque after the Ottoman conquest of Constantinople in 1453.
In 1934, Turkish leader Mustafa Kemal Ataturk’s cabinet decreed that it be turned into a museum. It is widely regarded as a symbol of peaceful religious coexistence.
Friday’s court ruling invalidates the 1934 decree. It grants Turkey’s president the authority to restore the museum to its status as a working mosque. The decision said the site is listed as a mosque in its title deed and that cannot be changed, Turkey’s Anadolu news agency reported.
Erdogan had previously signaled that he intended to make that change. In his decision Friday, he said the site would be transferred to the Directorate of Religious Affairs and will be open for worship.
In a speech later that day, he said the mosque would open for Friday prayers on July 24.
The president added that the mosque would remain open to non-Muslims. It will “continue to embrace everyone,” Anadolu quoted Erdogan as saying.
When Hagia Sophia issued the Muslim call to prayer on Friday afternoon, a crowd in the nearby plaza broke out in cheers, an Anadolu video showed. The museum has been broadcasting the call to prayer for several years.
The Turkish government has “allowed Quran readings there on special occasions” in recent years, Anadolu reported.
Previously, a presidential spokesman offered assurances that no changes would be made to the interior. The domed site retains its Christian iconography, and minarets were added during its time as a mosque.
The possible change to the museum’s status has been widely condemned internationally.
“As museum, Hagia Sophia can function as place and symbol of encounter, dialogue and peaceful coexistence of peoples and cultures, mutual understanding and solidarity between Christianity and Islam,” wrote Ecumenical Patriarch Bartholomew, spiritual leader of Orthodox Christians.
He warned that the museum is a place where “East is embraced with the West” — and if converted, it would “fracture these two worlds.”
U.S. Secretary of State Mike Pompeo said this month that converting the Hagia Sophia would limit “its unsurpassed ability — so rare in the modern world — to serve humanity as a much-needed bridge between those of differing faith traditions and cultures.”
Elizabeth Prodromou, a professor focused on geopolitics and religion at The Fletcher School at Tufts University, said the Hagia Sophia decision was a “tragedy, quite candidly, although it’s not surprising.”
The Hagia Sophia, she said, “has been a lightning rod for a synthesis of religio-nationalism and instrumentalized as a symbol by the Erdogan government.”
“It’s just another example of the long pattern now of Turkey’s turn away from its commitments as a member of the NATO Western alliance, and its commitment to the norms that are associated with democracy,” Prodromou added.
On Friday, the plaza in front of the Hagia Sophia, normally packed with visitors standing in long lines to get in, was nearly empty, after officials warned against large public gatherings that could spread the coronavirus. Visitors strolled in and out of the building without waiting.
A 32-year-old man named Sahib held his prayer mat and said he made the trip to the Hagia Sophia in hopes of performing Friday midday Muslim prayers there. Speaking before the decision was announced, he said, “I am hoping the Council of State reverses this wrong decision, so we can do our prayers in the Hagia Sophia.” He said he’d be back next Friday to pray.
Elena, a Russian on her first visit to Istanbul, said she doesn’t favor converting the museum back into a working mosque. “Well, even being Muslim myself,” she said, “I think it still has to stay as a museum.”
She said visiting the Hagia Sophia was an unexpectedly thrilling part of her visit.
“As I was about to enter, I didn’t expect that I would feel so excited,” she said. “It was really breathtaking.”