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Erdogan rebuffs criticism over Hagia Sophia conversion to mosque

Erdogan rebuffs criticism over Hagia Sophia conversion to mosque

AFP
Istanbul
President Recep Tayyip Erdogan on Saturday rejected worldwide condemnation over Turkey’s decision to convert the Byzantine-era monument Hagia Sophia back into a mosque, saying it represented his country’s will to use its “sovereign rights”.
Erdogan, who critics say is chipping away at the Muslim-majority country’s secular pillars, announced Friday that Muslim prayers would begin on July 24 at the UNESCO World Heritage site.
“Those who do not take a step against Islamophobia in their own countries ... attack Turkey’s will to use its sovereign rights,” Erdogan said during a ceremony he attended via video-conference.
A magnet for tourists worldwide, the Hagia Sophia 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.
Erdogan’s announcement came after a top court cancelled a 1934 cabinet decision under modern Turkey’s secularising founder Mustafa Kemal Ataturk to preserve the church-turned-mosque as a museum.
Erdogan then signed a presidential decree handing the control of the “Hagia Sophia Mosque” to Turkey’s religious affairs directorate, Diyanet.
“We made this decision not looking at what others say but looking what our right is and what our nation wants, just like what we have done in Syria, in Libya and elsewhere,” the Turkish leader said Saturday.
Erdogan went ahead with the plan despite appeals from NATO ally the United States and from Russia, with which Ankara has forged close relations in recent years.
Greece swiftly condemned the move as a provocation, France deplored it while the United States also expressed disappointment.
Russia’s Deputy Foreign Minister Alexander Grushko said Saturday Moscow regretted the decision.
But Ozgur Unluhisarcikli, Ankara director of the German Marshall Fund, told AFP the move would win hearts and minds at home as most Turks “would favour such a decision for religious or nationalist sentiments.
On Saturday, police had put up barriers around the Hagia Sophia.
On Friday, Erdogan gave assurances that the Hagia Sophia would be open to all visitors, including non-Muslims.
“The Hagia Sophia’s doors will remain open to visitors from all around the world,” his press aide, Fahrettin Altun tweeted Saturday.
“People of all religious denominations are welcome and encouraged to visit it - just as they have been able to visit other mosques, including the Blue Mosque.”

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