Muslims pray to turn Turkey's greatest monument back into a mosque
By Ayla Jean Yackley
ISTANBUL (Reuters) - It has served as the exalted seat of two faiths since its vast dome and lustrous gold mosaics first levitated above Istanbul in the 6th Century: Christendom's greatest cathedral for 900 years and one of Islam's greatest mosques for another 500.
Today, the Hagia Sophia, or Ayasofya in Turkish, is officially a museum: Turkey's most-visited monument, whose formally neutral status symbolizes the secular nature of the modern Turkish state.
But tens of thousands of Muslim worshippers gathering there on Saturday hope it will again be a mosque, a dream they believe Prime Minister Tayyip Erdogan can fulfill.
There are even rumors - denied by the government - that Erdogan, a religious conservative who is seeking the presidency at an election in August, could lead prayers there one day soon.
"This is a serious push to break Ayasofya's chains," said Salih Turan, head of the Anatolia Youth Association, which has collected 15 million signatures to petition for it to be turned back into a mosque.
"Ayasofya is a symbol for the Islamic world and the symbol of Istanbul's conquest. Without it, the conquest is incomplete, we have failed to honor Sultan Mehmet's trust," he said, citing a 15th Century deed signed by the conquering Caliph and decrying as sin other uses of Hagia Sophia.
Built in 537 by Byzantine Emperor Justinian whose rule stretched from Spain to the Middle East, Hagia Sophia - meaning "Divine Wisdom" in Greek - was unrivalled in the Christian world until Ottoman Sultan Mehmet II conquered the city in 1453 and turned it into a mosque. Modern Turkey's founder Mustafa Kemal Ataturk decreed it a museum in 1934.
Now, renewed interest in praying at Hagia Sophia taps into a burgeoning sense of Islamic identity that Erdogan has encouraged during a decade as Turkey's dominant politician. Continued...