Marking 563 years since the city was conquered by the Ottoman dynasty, thousands of protesters on Saturday held a special morning prayer in front of Istanbul’s Hagia Sophia Basilica, demanding that the building be reinstated as a mosque, as it was under the Ottoman empire.
The protesters, led by Mustafa Hasan, a Saudi imam, held up their mobile phones and chanted: “Break the chains! Open Hagia Sophia mosque!”
Ali Yegmur, chairman of the Youth of Anatolia movement, delivered a speech to the crowd.
“I ask Allah to allow Muslim prayer to be heard from the minarets of Hagia Sophia and to allow us to pray inside,” he said. “Hagia Sophia should be reinstated as a site of prayer and worship.”
“Leaving Hagia Sophia closed would send a message to the West that I have no right to practice my religion,” he added. “It would prompt 80 million living Turks and 50 million dead ones to cry in despair and destitution.”
Turkey is marking 563 years since the fall of Constantinople, the capital of Byzantium, and its renaming as Istanbul. Dozens of events have been held across the country, featuring members of Recep Tayyip Erdogan’s government.
The main event was held at Istanbul’s Yenikapi Square, where President Erdogan delivered a speech followed by a celebratory spectacle. A film about the 1453 conquest by Sultan Mohammed the Conqueror was screened.
Hagia Sophia was the Cathedral of Byzantium, the capital of the eastern part of the Roman Empire after the empire broke apart in 395 AD. It functioned as a Greek Orthodox Christian patriarchal basilica. Shortly after the city’s conquest, the cathedral was converted to a mosque, with four minarets added. In 1935, Mustafa Kemal Ataturk, the founder of modern Turkey, decided to ban prayers and turn the building into a museum featuring Byzantine and Ottoman architecture.
The coming to power of Erdogan’s Islamist AKP party has yet to change the building’s status.