İrem UZUN -TDO- Muslim prayers have been held in the iconic Hagia Sophia for the first time in 86 years after the reconversion of the Istanbul landmark into a mosque earlier this month.

Roman Empire's first Christian cathedral then became a museum in 1935 as part of a decree by modern Turkey's secularist founding father Mustafa Kemal Ataturk. Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan said last year it had been a "very big mistake" to convert it into a museum. Two weeks ago, Erdogan declared the nearly 1,500-year-old monument open to Muslim worship after a top court ruled the building's conversion to a museum in the mid-1930s was illegal.

About 1,000 people were allowed in through security checkpoints, while others laid out prayer mats outside. An opening ceremony was followed by a formal prayer service and proceedings were relayed outside on a big screen. Four muezzins recited the call to prayer from each of the four minarets. Erdogan later visited the Fatih Mosque, where he visited the tomb of Fatih Sultan Mehmet, or Mehmed the Conqueror, who conquered what was then Constantinople in 1453. The city was renamed Istanbul. Speaking at Fatih Mosque, Erdogan said Hagia Sophia had returned to its "original" use. "Hopefully it will serve as a mosque until eternity. It is the cultural heritage of all humanity that everybody can come and visit," he said.

The decision to turn it back into a mosque was criticized by religious and political leaders worldwide. Church leaders and some Western countries have sharply criticized Turkey’s move, saying the shift to exclusive Muslim worship at Hagia Sophia risks deepening religious divisions. Pope Francis said he was deeply pained by the decision. In Greece, church bells tolled in mourning on Friday. Greek Prime Minister Kyriakos Mitsotakis called Turkey a “troublemaker”, and the Hagia Sophia conversion an “affront to civilization of the 21st century”.

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