Three imams were named Thursday to lead prayers at Turkey’s Hagia Sophia mosque, a day before the country’s president joins hundreds of worshippers inside the national landmark that was recently designated a mosque.
Ali Erbas, head of Turkey’s religious authority, announced the appointments of Mehmet Boynukalin, a professor of Islamic Law at Istanbul’s Marmara University; Ferruh Mustuer and Bunjamin Topcuoglu, imams at two other Istanbul mosques. Erbas also named five muezzins, officials who make the Muslim call to prayer.
In a July 10 decree that stirred international opposition, Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan declared the nearly 1,500-year-old structure a mosque after a top Turkish court ruled the building’s earlier conversion into a museum was illegal.
The sixth century UNESCO-listed site was initially an Orthodox Christian cathedral that became a mosque following the Ottoman conquest of Istanbul in 1453. It was made into a museum in 1934 by modern Turkey’s founding statesmen, Mustafa Kemal Ataturk.
Following Erdogan’s decree this month, Pope Francis said he was “very pained,” and the World Council of Churches expressed “grief and dismay.” Greece’s culture ministry described the decision as an “open provocation” to the civilized world, and the U.S. State Department was “disappointed.”
Though mosaics depicting Christian figures in the Hagia Sophia will be covered during Muslim prayers, Erdogan said the mosque would be “open to all, locals and foreigners, Muslims and non-Muslims.”
As many as 17,000 security personnel will be on duty for the mosque’s first prayers on Friday.