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Turkey Holds 1st Muslim Prayers In Hagia Sophia Newly Converted Into A Mosque

ARI SHAPIRO, HOST:

In Istanbul today, Turkey's president attended the first Muslim prayers in 86 years in the iconic Hagia Sophia - originally a 6th century church, then a mosque, then a museum, and now once again a mosque. The move cheered President Recep Tayyip Erdogan's conservative religious base but drew criticism from around the world. NPR's Peter Kenyon reports from Istanbul.

PETER KENYON, BYLINE: As an estimated tens of thousands of people listened to Islamic singing from the Hagia Sophia's loudspeakers, Erdogan arrived for midday Friday prayers. He then moved on to another mosque, the one named after the Ottoman leader Mehmed the Conqueror. Mehmed led the Ottoman conquest of Constantinople in 1453. He ordered the Hagia Sophia, which had stood for centuries as the greatest example of Byzantine church architecture in the world, to be converted into a mosque. The Christian iconography and mosaics were preserved and survive to this day. Now during Islamic prayer times, they'll be covered with curtains. Erdogan told reporters that work on the mosque will continue. He's heard through an interpreter.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

RECEP TAYYIP ERDOGAN: (Through interpreter) Following all the restoration activities, this structure will be much more meaningful for us all. So I would like to thank to all my brothers and sisters who contributed to bring this to fruition.

KENYON: A few streets away in his tiny electronics shop, a young man gives his first name, Fiti, and asks that his family name not be used. He doesn't want to alienate any potential customers. As an electric fan clatters in the corner on a hot summer afternoon, Fiti says he thinks turning the Hagia Sophia back into a mosque will be good for the neighborhood and for the tourism industry. The bottom line, as far as he's concerned, is that it's all worship, no matter what your particular rituals.

FITI: Of course, because church people, they doesn't just make their hands like this. They prayed.

KENYON: He puts his hands together, making a steeple of his fingers in a symbol of Christian prayer.

FITI: Of course they can go inside. They can pray like this.

KENYON: They can pray like this, he says, extending his hands palms up in the custom of Islamic prayer. But not everyone shares Fiti's generous view. The pope has described the pain he felt upon hearing news of the Hagia Sophia's future, and international leaders urged Erdogan to reconsider to no avail. Turkish officials stress that outside of prayer times, the public will still be welcome in the Hagia Sophia. But some argue that as a museum, the Hagia Sophia stood as a symbol of religious tolerance and peace, and they wonder if it can retain that value now. Peter Kenyon, NPR News, Istanbul.

(SOUNDBITE OF SOFT GLAS SONG, "BASIL") Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.