A top Turkish court yesterday struck down the 1934 Cabinet decree that turned Istanbul's Hagia Sophia into a museum, paving the way for its use again as a mosque after an 85-year hiatus.
An NGO in Istanbul, the Permanent Foundations Service to Historical Artifacts and Environment Association, had filed a petition at the Council of State seeking annulment of the decision to convert Hagia Sophia into a museum after being a mosque for nearly 500 years.
The court heard the parties' arguments at a July 2 hearing before issuing its ruling, according to Turkish news agency (Anadolu).
According to the court's full ruling, Hagia Sophia was owned by a foundation established by Ottoman Sultan Mehmet the Conqueror and was presented to the community as a mosque.
The decision said that in its title deed, Hagia Sophia was defined as a "mosque" and this cannot be legally changed.
The society the mosque was bestowed to cannot be prevented from exercising its rights and benefits through the age-old immovable property the foundation left to it, said the ruling.
It concluded that it is not legally possible to use the building as anything other than a mosque, as it is defined as such in the deed.
Under the Byzantine Empire, Hagia Sophia had been used as a church for 916 years.
In 1453, after the Ottoman Empire conquered Istanbul, it was converted into a mosque by Sultan Mehmet II, also known as the Conqueror.
An unparalleled treasure of world architecture, Hagia Sophia underwent restoration work during the Ottoman era, including the addition of minarets for the call to prayer by famed architect Mimar Sinan.
Under the Turkish Republic, in 1935 it became a museum.
In recent years Turkish leaders have called for its use as a mosque again and allowed Qur'an readings there on special occasions.
President Tayyip Erdogan declared Hagia Sophia open to Muslim prayer as a mosque yesterday after the court ruling.
Erdogan made his announcement just an hour after the court ruling was revealed, brushing aside international warnings not to change the status of the monument.
"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.