Istanbul's iconic Hagia Sophia will be opened to Muslim worshippers on July 24 for the first time in more than eight decades, Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan said Friday, vowing to maintain the world heritage site for visitors of all faiths despite international concerns over its conversion to a mosque.
"God willing, we will join Friday prayers all together here on July 24 and open it (Hagia Sophia) for prayers," Erdogan told a televised address to the nation, an emotional speech filled with nationalist and religious references.
Erdogan said it could take up to six months to finalise preparations to make the building, home to some world-renowned Christian symbols and mosaics, compatible with Islamic prayers.
The president said his government is committed to protecting the UNESCO heritage site in a way that everyone, including Muslim and Christian believers, can keep visiting it. He did not elaborate on the planned preparations.
Pro-government media recently suggested stretching a curtain over the Christian symbols, among them a well-known mosaic face of an angel uncovered in 2009.
The sixth-century building was founded as a Byzantine church, later converted into a mosque, and then operated as a secular museum that is a magnet for tourists.
Erdogan called on observers, local and foreign alike, to "respect" the decision, and asked citizens to avoid gathering or visiting the site for prayers before the designated opening.
The US, EU, Russia and Greece, along with UNESCO expressed dismay with the planned conversion of the site.
The Russian Orthodox Church criticised Erdogan's move as ignoring "the concern of millions of Christians," according to the Russian news agency Interfax.
UNESCO said it "deeply regrets" the decision, calling for dialogue to "to prevent any detrimental effect on the universal value" of the building.
Morgan Ortagus, the State Department spokesperson, said the US is "disappointed" by decision.
EU foreign policy chief Josep Borrell called it "regrettable."
Erdogan had earlier Friday signed a decree ordering the Hagia Sophia to be handed over to the country's religious authority and reopened as a mosque.
The order came shortly after a ruling by Turkey's top administrative court which overturned a 1934 decree that made the Hagia Sophia a museum.
It is Turkey's "historical and sovereignty right" to reconvert the 6th-century building into a mosque, Erdogan said, referring to a copy in the background of a will by Ottoman Sultan Mehmed II.
Shortly after he captured Istanbul, then known as Constantinople, in 1453, Mehmed II turned the already 900-year-old Byzantine church into a mosque.
Erdogan, who often champions the glorification of the former Ottoman empire, referred to the mosque's conversion as a "second conquest," reciting a poem.
"Praise be to God for granting this day to us," he concluded.
State broadcaster TRT showed footage of call to prayers being recited from the compound's four minarets and people praying in the open behind police barricades in a nearby public park.
The top court's ruling stemmed from a 2016 petition by a little-known association which argued the Hagia Sophia was the property of Sultan Mehmed II.
It had also argued a signature by Mustafa Kemal Ataturk, the founder of the modern secular Turkish republic, on the 1934 cabinet decision was forged and thus invalid.
A cultural landmark for both Christians and Muslims, the Hagia Sophia attracted 3.7 million visitors in 2019, according to Istanbul governor's office.
The leader of main opposition secular Republican People's Party (CHP) Kemal Kilicdaroglu earlier this month accused Erdogan of "using as a political tool" the Hagia Sophia issue.
A recent poll by Turkey's Metropoll found that 44 per cent of Turks believe the government brought Hagia Sophia on the agenda to divert attention from economic troubles.