Turkey's ruling AKP's Hagia Sophia show amid concerns of COVID-19

President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan’s ruling AKP turned the opening of Hagia Sophia as a mosque into a religious show while social distancing rules were ignored around Hagia Sophia as thousands of people flooded into the streets around the iconic site for prayer amid the pandemic.
Saturday, 25 July 2020 14:25

İstanbul’s iconic Hagia Sophia Museum was opened for prayers on July 24 after being converted into a mosque. On July 10, the Council of State cancelled a past decision of the Council of Ministers that had turned Hagia Sophia into a museum in 1934, paving the way for turning the Byzantine-era building into a mosque like in the Ottoman times. 

President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan recently signed a decree annulling Hagia Sophia’s status of museum, and the administration of the converted site was transferred to Turkey’s Religious Affairs Presidency (Diyanet). 


Crowded groups gathered on the ways reaching Hagia Sophia for the Friday prayer. At some points, thousands of people flooded into police checkpoints while ignoring social distancing without wearing protective masks against the COVID-19 pandemic. 

As İstanbul Metropolitan Municipality announced, some tram and metro lines were closed in order to “prevent” big crowds during the day of prayer at Hagia Sophia. Shuttle bus lines were organized to carry the passengers around İstanbul. 

While thousands of worshippers gathered in and out of Hagia Sophia, social distancing rules were ignored except some few people around Erdoğan were seen obeying the rules to protect the president.

Erdoğan recited verses from the Quran during the Religious Affairs’ program at Hagia Sophia. Vice President Fuat Oktay, Parliamentary Spokesperson Mustafa Şentop, Erdoğan’s ally Devlet Bahçeli (the leader of Nationalist Movement Party), former Prime Minister Tansu Çiller, and some other ministers and cabinet members also participated in the program. 

Following the Friday prayer at Hagia Sophia, Erdoğan visited the tomb of Mehmed the Conqueror. “Now this place [Hagia Sophia] has returned to its original form, it has become a mosque again,” Erdoğan said, adding that 350,000 attended prayers around Hagia Sophia. 


Ali Erbaş, the head of Turkey’s Religious Affairs, went up to the pulpit at Hagia Sophia with a sword as a symbol of the Ottoman tradition of conquest, and read out the Friday sermon. 

“Sultan Mehmed the Conqueror endowed and entrusted this place on condition that it should remain as a mosque until the doomsday. Whoever violates the endowed is cursed,” Erbaş said. 

Erbaş has been criticized by secular citizens because he implied and targeted Mustafa Kemal Atatürk, the founder of the modern Republic of Turkey, who had signed a decree that turned the iconic Hagia Sophia into a museum within the scope of secular revolutionary principles.  

Built in 537, the Byzantine-era monument Hagia Sophia had served as a church until 1453 when the Ottoman Empire conquered İstanbul and converted the church into a mosque. A cabinet decree of 1934 turned the place into a museum under the secular principles of modern Republic of Turkey.