İrem UZUN -TDO- Turkey's president Recep Tayyip Erdogan has declared Istanbul's Hagia Sophia open to Muslim worship after a top court ruled that the building's conversion to a museum by modern Turkey's founding statesman was illegal.

Erdogan made the announcement on Friday despite international warnings not to change the status of the nearly 1,500-year-old monument, revered by Christians and Muslims alike. "The decision was taken to hand over the management of the Ayasofya Mosque ... to the Religious Affairs Directorate and open it for worship," the decision signed by Erdogan said. Defending the decision, President Erdogan stressed that the country had exercised its sovereign right in converting it back to a mosque. He told a press conference the first Muslim prayers would be held inside the building on 24 July. "Like all our mosques, the doors of Hagia Sophia will be wide open to locals and foreigners, Muslims and non-Muslims," he added.

Earlier, a top Turkish court revoked the Byzantine-era Hagia Sophia's status as a museum. The Council of State cancelled a 1934 cabinet decision that defined the sixth-century building as a museum. "It was concluded that the settlement deed allocated it as a mosque and its use outside this character is not possible legally," Turkey's top administrative court said in the ruling.

UNESCO has said it deeply regrets the decision to turn the museum into a mosque and called on the Turkish authorities to open a dialogue without delay. The Orthodox Christian Church in Russia immediately expressed regret that the Turkish court had not taken its concerns into account when ruling on Hagia Sophia, saying that “decision could lead to even greater divisions”.

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