Istanbul: Istanbul’s iconic Hagia Sophia opened its doors to Muslim worshippers for Friday prayers for the first time since the 1,500-year-old Unesco World Heritage site was converted into a mosque.
“Muslims are excited, everyone wants to be at the opening,” the BBC quoted Istanbul Governor Ali Yerlikaya as saying in a televised address on Thursday.
Yerlikaya urged those attending the prayers on Friday to bring “(face) masks, a prayer rug, patience and understanding” as measures to help prevent the spread of COVID-19 would be in place.
He added that healthcare workers would be made available at the site.
A turquoise carpet was laid on the floor to prepare for prayers and Christian relics were covered up with white drapes or obscured by lighting, said te BBC report.
Among the Christian mosaics expected to be obscured was the ninth-Century mosaic of the Virgin Mary and Jesus inside the apse.
President Recep Tayyip Erdogan is expected to offer his prayers on Friday.
Built 1,500 years ago as an Orthodox Christian cathedral, Hagia Sophia was converted into a mosque after the Ottoman conquest in 1453 and it went on to become a museum in 1934.
But on July 11, the Turkish State Council annulled its status, saying any use other than as a mosque was “not possible legally”.
According to Turkey’s Religious Affairs Minister, Ali Erbas, said that about 1,000 people would be able to attend prayers at the site at any one time.
He said that “modifications” had been made inside and that a “garden setup” had been prepared, adding that the site would remain open overnight.
Following the Council’s announcement, Erdogan had said that the building would remain open to all Muslims, non-Muslims and foreign visitors.
The decision to convert it led to widespread criticism.
Pope Francis said that his “thoughts go to Istanbul,” adding: “I think of Santa Sophia and I am very pained,” reports the BBC.
The head of the Eastern Orthodox Church, Patriarch Bartholomew I, warned that the conversion of the building would “disappoint millions of Christians” and fracture two worlds.
The World Council of Churches, which counts 350 churches as members, called for the decision to be reversed, saying it would sow division.
Unesco said it deeply regretted the move, which further enflamed tensions with neighbouring Greece, home to millions of Orthodox followers.