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    Erdogan joins thousands for first prayers at Hagia Sophia

    Friday was the big day in Istanbul as tens of thousands of worshippers took took part in the first prayers at Hagia Sophia in nine decades. After the call to prayer rang out, worshippers knelt in prayer inside the building, outside tens of thousands converged in the square and surrounding streets for a ceremony which many saw as righting a historic mistake when the mosque was converted to a museum in 1934 by modern Turkey’s secularist founder Mustafa Kemal Ataturk. “I can’t express my feelings. Some feelings cannot be expressed but I shed tears of joy. I am very joyful. In my own country, the mosque that was conquered by Mehmet the Conqueror was shut down and I am very happy that it is now reopened. I feel blessed.” White curtains covered an image of Mary and Jesus which would have faced the worshippers, but pictures of angels were still visible on arches supporting the mosque’s dome. Hagia Sophia was the largest cathedral in the world for 900 years until its capture by Ottoman Sultan Mehmet the Conqueror in 1453, after which it was one of Islam’s most exalted mosques for nearly another 500 years. For Yusuf Genc, the head of Istanbul’s branch of the Anatolian Youth Association, the prayers mark the culmination of decades-long efforts to convert the monument. “We struggled for this for years. Hagia Sophia is a symbol and we, like all Muslims, wanted it to be opened as a mosque. This is a belated decision. It should have been taken way before. This decision is taken now and we are very pleased as a community.” But the elation is not universally shared. Pope Francis is among church leaders and and a number of countries- including the United States and Greece, that have sharply criticized Turkey’s move, saying the shift to exclusive Muslim worship at Hagia Sophia risks deepening religious divisions.
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    World News from Reuters

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