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Turkish President Erdoğan Leads First Prayer in Hagia Sophia in Decades

Thousands of worshippers from across Turkey flocked to the capital on Friday to participate in the first prayers to be held at the mammoth Hagia Sophia site in 86 years. Due to coronavirus restrictions, only 500 people were allowed to enter the building, recently redesignated as a mosque in a controversial move by President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan. The remaining thousands conducted the weekly religious ritual, led by Erdoğan himself, on the adjacent lawns and plazas in Istanbul city center. Following the ceremony, Erdoğan expressed his hope that the structure “will serve as a mosque for all eternity.” Turkey’s decision to convert the Hagia Sophia back into a religious Muslim site earlier this month caused outrage across Europe as countries from Greece to Germany to the Vatican itself expressed their dismay and concern. The building, initially erected by the Byzantines in the sixth century, was for centuries the largest church in the world. Following its conquest of Constantinople in the 15th century, the Ottoman Empire then converted the massive cathedral and its sprawling gardens into a mosque. In 1935, Turkish Republic founder Mustafa Kemal Atatürk stripped any religious features from the site and banned all praying and acts of worship inside the complex in an attempt to instill a secular form of government. In recent years, Erdoğan has repeatedly chipped away at the separation of religion and state, an act seen by many as an attempt to weaken his opposition inside the army and government.