Thousands of Muslims converged on Istanbul's landmark Hagia Sophia on Friday to take part in the first prayers in 86 years, at what was once one of Christendom's most significant cathedrals, then a mosque and museum before its reconversion into a Muslim place of worship. Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan was scheduled to attend the inaugural prayers inside the sixth-century monument as he fulfills what he's described as the "dream of our youth" anchored in Turkey's Islamic movement, per the AP. Thousands of people, including many from across Turkey, quickly filled specially designated, segregated areas outside of Hagia Sophia to be part of the first prayers; several camped near the structure overnight. Dozens of worshipers broke through a police checkpoint, and social distancing practices, in place due to COVID-19, were being ignored, per Turkish media.
Orthodox church leaders in Greece and the United States, meanwhile, were scheduled to observe “a day of mourning” over the inaugural prayers. Erdogan had issued a decree restoring the building as a mosque earlier this month, shortly after a Turkish high court ruled that Hagia Sophia, a UNESCO World Heritage Site, had been illegally made into a museum more than eight decades ago. The move sparked dismay in Greece and the US and among Christian churches who called on Erdogan to maintain it as a museum as a nod to the structure's status as a sign of Christian and Muslim unity. "Today is a difficult day," a Greek government spokesman told local media. Erdogan disagrees. "This is Hagia Sophia breaking away from its captivity chains," he said last week. Turkey vows to protect Hagia Sophia's artifacts and says it will remain open to Muslims and non-Muslims outside of prayer hours.
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