ISTANBUL – Fulfilling a dream of his Islamic-oriented youth, Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan joined hundreds of worshipers Friday for the first Muslim prayers in 86 years inside Hagia Sophia, the Istanbul landmark that served as one of Christendom’s most significant cathedrals, a mosque and a museum before its conversion back into a Muslim place of worship.
Thousands of other Muslim faithful came from across Turkey and quickly filled specially designated areas outside of the Byzantine era monument to join in the inaugural prayers. Many others were turned away, while Orthodox Christian church leaders in Greece and the United States announced a “day of mourning” over Hagia Sophia's return as a mosque.
The prayers began with Erdogan reciting from the Quran. The head of Turkey's religious authority, Ali Erbas, led the ceremony and prayed that Muslims would never again be “denied” the right to worship at the internationally celebrated 6th century structure.
As many as many as 350,000 people took part in Friday's prayers, the president said.
Adem Yilmaz, who attended the prayers, expressed joy at experiencing “the making of history.”
“This turned into a place where all hearts beat at once,” he said.
Brushing aside international criticism, Erdogan issued a decree restoring the iconic building as a mosque earlier this month, shortly after a Turkish high court ruled that the Hagia Sophia had been illegally made into a museum more than eight decades ago.
The structure, a UNESCO World Heritage site, has since been renamed “The Grand Hagia Sophia Mosque.”