ANKARA, Turkey — The Turkish government formally converted a former Byzantine church into a mosque Friday, a move that came a month after it drew praise from the faithful and international opposition for similarly turning Istanbul’s landmark Hagia Sophia into a Muslim house of prayer.
A decision by President Recep Tayyip Erdogan, published in the country’s Official Gazette, said Istanbul’s Church of St. Saviour in Chora, known as Kariye in Turkish, was handed to Turkey's religious authority, which would open up the structure for Muslim prayers.
Like the Hagia Sophia, which was a church for centuries and then a mosque for centuries more, had operated as a museum for decades before Erdogan ordered it restored as a mosque. It was not immediately known when the first prayers would be held there.
Hagia Sophia (Aya Sofya) indoors captured with fish-eye lens. Warm tone given. Unrecognizable people visible.See more Istanbul
The church, situated near the ancient city walls, is famed for its elaborate mosaics and frescoes. It dates to the 4th century, although the edifice took on its current form in the 11th-12th centuries.
The structure served as a mosque during the Ottoman rule before being transformed into a museum in 1945. A court decision last year canceled the building’s status as a museum, paving the way for Friday’s decision.
And as with the Hagia Sophia, the decision to transform the Chora back into a mosque is seen as geared to consolidate the conservative and religious support base of Erdogan's ruling party at a time when his popularity is sagging amid an economic downturn.
People visit the Byzantine-era Hagia Sophia, an UNESCO World Heritage site and one of Istanbul’s main tourist attractions in the historic Sultanahmet district of Istanbul, July 10. (AP Photo/Emrah Gurel)
Greece’s Foreign Ministry strongly condemned the move, saying that Turkish authorities “are once again brutally insulting the character" of another U.N.-listed world heritage site.
“This is a provocation against all believers,” the Greek ministry said in a statement. “We urge Turkey to return to the 21st century, and the mutual respect, dialogue and understanding between civilizations.”
Elpidophoros, the Greek Orthodox archbishop of America, wrote on Twitter: “After the tragic transgression with Hagia Sophia, now the Monastery of Chora, this exquisite offering of Byzantine culture to the world!”
Several Istanbul residents rushed to the building Friday, some hoping to hold prayers there, Turkey's state-run Anadolu Agency reported.
“Like the Hagia Sophia, this is an important mosque for Muslims,” the agency quoted Istanbul resident Cuma Er as saying. “We came here to pray after we learned about the decision. But we have been told that it has not yet been opened for prayers. We are waiting for the opening.”
Last month, Erdogan joined hundreds of worshipers for the first Muslim prayers in Hagia Sophia in 86 years, brushing aside the international criticism and calls for the monument to be kept as a museum in recognition of Istanbul’s multi-faith heritage. As many as 350,000 took part in the prayers outside the structure.