Turkish President visits Hagia Sophia ahead of grand reopening as mosque

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Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan paid a surprise visit to Hagia Sofia on Sunday, just days before the first Muslim prayers are due to be held at the landmark since it was reconverted to a mosque last week.

In a lightning visit billed as an inspection, Erdogan took stock of the conversion work, the president’s office said, providing pictures showing scaffolding inside the building.

The president, who is expected to attend the first Friday prayers in Hagia Sophia, was accompanied by ministers and head of the Presidency of Religious Affairs during his visit.

Turkey’s top court paved the way for the mosque conversion in a decision to revoke the edifice’s museum status conferred nearly a century ago.

RELATED: Turkish administrative court repeals 1934 decree that turned Hagia Sophia into museum.

The sixth-century building had been open to all visitors, regardless of their faith, since its inauguration as a museum in 1935.

Earlier this week, the country’s religious authority, Diyanet, said the building would continue to be open to all visitors outside the hours given over to prayer. They also added that Christian icons would be curtained off and unlit “through appropriate means during prayer times.”

RELATED: Turkey will cover Hagia Sophia mosaics during prayers, says ruling party spokesman.

The UNESCO World Heritage site was built as a cathedral during the Byzantine empire but converted into a mosque after the Ottoman conquest of Constantinople in 1453.

It was designated a museum in a key reform of the post-Ottoman authorities under the modern republic’s founder Mustafa Kemal Ataturk.

Erdogan said last year it had been a “very big mistake” to convert Hagia Sophia into a museum.

The reconversion sparked anger among Christians and tensions between historic foes and uneasy NATO allies Turkey and Greece.

READ MORE: Australia’s Greek organisations denounce conversion of Hagia Sophia into mosque.

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