Erdoğan joins hundreds when Hagia Sophia opens as a mosque for prayer

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Thousands gathered around Hagia Sophia in Istanbul on Friday as the historic building opened for Friday prayers and its conversion into a mosque was completed.

Inside, President Erdoğan and Turkish government ministers knelt at the beginning of a ceremony that marked the return of Muslim worship to the site.

Meanwhile, crowds of believers gathered outside on prayer mats in Sultanahmet Square.

The governor of Istanbul, Ali Yerlikaya, said before the Friday prayers: "The Muslims are excited, everyone wants to be at the opening."

However, leaders of the Orthodox Church in Greece and elsewhere said that they would observe "a day of mourning" for the opening ceremony.

On July 10, a judgment by the High Court in Turkey allowed the historic Hagia Sophia in Istanbul to be turned into a mosque.

Shortly after the court made its decision, President Erdoğan announced that the former cathedral would be opened for worship as the “Ayasofya Mosque”.

The court ruling overturned a decision in 1934 to stop using Hagia Sophia as a mosque and convert it to a museum instead.

It was built 1500 years ago as the most important cathedral in the Eastern Roman Empire and was first converted into a mosque in 1453 when the Ottomans conquered Constantinople.

The Turkish government has announced that the Christian iconography uncovered during its time as a museum is now being covered up again.

Many church leaders have been critical of the decision. Pope Francis said he was "very tormented" by the decision, and Ecumenical Patriarch Bartholomew, Archbishop of Constantinople, told the Washington Post that he was "sad and shaken".

Despite an international backlash, President Erdoğan, with prominent criticism from UNESCO, the European Union and the United States, insisted that Turkey was only exercising its "sovereign rights".

"This is Hagia Sophia detaching from her captive chains," Erdoğan said last week. "It was the greatest dream of our youth."

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