After it becomes a mosque again, Turkey will “carefully” protect Hagia Sophia’s historical heritage and keep it open to visitors from all faiths and nations, a deputy chair of Turkey’s ruling party said Saturday.

In a written statement, Justice and Development (AK) Party deputy chair for foreign affairs Cevdet Yilmaz said: “Turning Hagia Sophia into a mosque means restoring its status as a place of prayer. This by no means negates its historical heritage, and there is no contradiction between using this site as a mosque and opening it to visitors.”

Making Hagia Sophia a mosque again is a matter of national sovereignty, he explained, saying: “Turkey’s decision should be respected and it cannot accept any approach to impose a specific decision upon the country.”

Bolstering the recent decision, he cited “the examples of France’s iconic Notre Dame Cathedral and Sacre-Coeur Basilica, world-famous churches which are open to both tourists and worshippers.”

Other famed mosques in Turkey such as Istanbul’s Blue Mosque, near Hagia Sophia, are also open to both visitors and worshippers, he added.

Protecting Turkey’s non-Muslim heritage

Speaking on Turkey’s sensitivity to the country’s multi-faith heritage, he said: “A significant number of functioning churches and synagogues are given support to remain open, despite dwindling congregations.”

Also, highlighting Turkey’s President Recep Tayyip Erdogan’s efforts to improve the rights of religious minorities, he said: “Between 2003 and 2014, more than 1,000 unidentified non-Muslim properties, which in the past were either confiscated by the state or unused by non-Muslims for various reasons, were reinstated to minority community foundations.”

During this period, Turkey used public funds to repair the historic Akdamar Church in the eastern Van province and the Great Synagogue in the western Edirne province, among other symbols of its nation’s religious diversity.

Hagia Sophia was first built as a church in the Byzantine period. It became a mosque after Ottoman Sultan Mehmet II conquered Istanbul in 1453.

Last week, a top Turkish court annulled the 1934 Cabinet decree which had turned Hagia Sophia into a museum after nearly 500 years of use as a mosque.

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