ISTANBUL - Yearning for the flourishing days of the Ottoman Empire, thousands of Turkish Muslims prayed outside Aya Sofya Mosque on Saturday, May 26, in protest at a law that bars religious services at the historic monument.
Break the chains, let Hagia Sophia Mosque open, and God is great, worshippers shouted before praying in front of the historic mosque, Reuters reported.
A church for over 1,000 years, and a mosque for 500 more, Aya Sophia is the most spectacular building in Istanbul.
The church was turned into a mosque after Constantinople was taken by Sultan Mehmet II in 1453.
Extraordinary masters of the Ottoman Empire architects repaired the building extensively in the 16th century, providing greater exterior support for the dome and the walls. Minarets were also added.
Yet, a Turkish secular law in 1934 barred religious services at the 6th-century monument.
Keeping Hagia Sophia Mosque closed is an insult to our mostly Muslim population of 75 million, Salih Turhan, head of the Anatolian Youth Association, which organized the event, told the crowd.
It symbolizes our ill-treatment by the West.
The government has rejected requests from both Christians and Muslims to hold formal prayers at the site, historically and spiritually significant to followers of both religions.
The rally's size and location signals more tolerance for religious expression under Prime Minister Tayyip Erdogan, whose party traces its roots to a banned Islamist movement.
His government has also allowed Christian worship at sites that were off-limits for decades, as it seeks to bring human rights in line with the European Union, which it aims to join.
Ottoman Glory The protest was held ahead of next week's celebrations marking the 559th anniversary of the Ottoman Sultan Mehmet's conquest of Byzantine Constantinople.
As the grandchildren of Mehmet the Conqueror, seeking the re-opening Hagia Sophia as a mosque is our legitimate right, Turhan said in an interview.
The Ottoman Empire lasted from 1299 to November 1, 1922.
At the height of its power (16th-17th century), the Ottoman Empire spanned three continents, controlling much of Southeastern Europe, Western Asia and North Africa.
It contained 29 provinces and numerous vassal states, some of which were later absorbed into the empire, while others gained various types of autonomy during the course of centuries.
The empire also temporarily gained authority over distant overseas lands through declarations of allegiance to the Ottoman Sultan and Caliph.
The Ottoman Empire was succeeded by the Republic of Turkey, which was officially proclaimed on October 29, 1923.
Under Erdogan, many Turks have come to embrace their imperial Ottoman past and question the more austere, Western-oriented reforms that followed the last sultan's overthrow in 1923.
The shift coincides with a stalled EU bid and declining expectations Turkey will ever join the European bloc.
While some Orthodox argue Hagia Sophia should be returned to its original state as a Christian basilica, the Ecumenical Patriarch, spiritual leader of the world's 250 million Orthodox, does not support these efforts.
"We want it to remain a museum in line with the Republic of Turkey's principles," said Father Dositheos Anagnostopulos, the patriarch's spokesman."If it were to become a mosque, Christians wouldn't be able to pray there, and if it became a church it would be chaos."