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Turkish court rules to let Hagia Sophia return as mosque

Turkey’s highest administrative court issued a ruling Friday that paves the way for the government to convert Istanbul’s iconic Hagia Sophia - a former cathedral-turned-mosque that now serves as a museum - back into a Muslim house of worship.

The Council of State threw its weight behind a petition brought by a religious group and annulled a 1934 cabinet decision that changed the 6th century building into a museum. The ruling allows the government to restore the Hagia Sophia's previous status as a mosque.

Dozens of people who awaited the court’s ruling outside the Hagia Sophia jubilantly chanted “Allah is great!” when the news came out.

A Womacks takes photos of the Byzantine-era Hagia Sophia, an UNESCO World Heritage site and one of Istanbul's main tourist attractions in the historic Sultanahmet district of Istanbul, Friday, July 10, 2020. Turkey's Council of State, the country's highest administrative court is expected to release a ruling on a petition requesting that a 1934 decision that turned the Hagia Sophia into a museum be annulled. (AP PhotoEmrah Gurel)

The decision was in line with the Turkish president’s calls to turn the hugely symbolic world heritage site into a mosque despite widespread international criticism, including from the United States and Orthodox Christian leaders.

The decision could deepen tensions with neighboring Greece, which also called on Turkey to maintain the structure’s status as a museum.

The religious group had contested the legality of the 1934 decision by the modern Turkish republic’s secular government ministers and argued that the building was the personal property of Ottoman Sultan Mehmet II, who conquered Istanbul in 1453.

FILE-In this Monday, Dec. 21, 2015 file photo, visitors walk inside the Byzantine-era Hagia Sophia, an UNESCO World Heritage site and one of Istanbul's main tourist attractions in the historic Sultanahmet district of Istanbul. Turkey's Council of State, the country's highest administrative court is expected Friday, July 10, 2020, to release a ruling on a petition requesting that a 1934 decision that turned the Hagia Sophia into a museum be annulled. (AP PhotoLefteris Pitarakis, FILE)

The court ruled that Hagia Sophia was the property of a foundation managing the Sultan’s assets and was opened up to the public as a mosque.

People visit the Byzantine-era Hagia Sophia, one of Istanbul's main tourist attractions in the historic Sultanahmet district of Istanbul, Thursday, June 25, 2020. Turkey's highest administrative court on Thursday July 2, 2020, began considering a request for the UNESCO World Heritage site that now serves as a museum be reverted back into a mosque. (AP PhotoEmrah Gurel)

Armed police patrol outside the Byzantine-era Hagia Sophia, one of Istanbul's main tourist attractions in the historic Sultanahmet district of Istanbul, Thursday, June 25, 2020. Turkey's highest administrative court on Thursday July 2, 2020, began considering a request for the UNESCO World Heritage site that now serves as a museum be reverted back into a mosque. (AP PhotoEmrah Gurel)

People visit the Byzantine-era Hagia Sophia, an UNESCO World Heritage site and one of Istanbul's main tourist attractions in the historic Sultanahmet district of Istanbul, Friday, July 10, 2020.Turkey's Council of State, the country's highest administrative court is expected to release a ruling on a petition requesting that a 1934 decision that turned the Hagia Sophia into a museum be annulled. (AP PhotoEmrah Gurel)