ISTANBUL: Turkey’s Hagia Sophia could open to visitors outside prayer times and its Christian icons will remain, religious officials said on Tuesday, after a court ruling paved the way for it to become a mosque.
The sixth-century Istanbul landmark’s museum status — in place since 1934 — was revoked on Friday and control was handed to the religious authority, Diyanet.
The decision sparked condemnation from Western governments, Russia and Christian leaders — Pope Francis saying he was "very distressed".
Hagia Sophia spent almost 1,000 years as a cathedral before being converted into a mosque in 1453 and later a museum.
Diyanet said in a statement on Tuesday that Christian icons in Hagia Sophia were "not an obstacle to the validity of the prayers".
"The icons should be curtained and shaded through appropriate means during prayer times," it said.
"There is no obstacle from a religious perspective to Hagia Sophia Mosque being open to visitors outside prayer times."
Hagia Sophia, a major tourist attraction, has been the scene of Islam-linked activities in recent years. In 2018, President Recep Tayyip Erdogan recited a verse from Koran at the building.
Erdogan, who said the first Muslim prayers in Hagia Sophia would begin on July 24, has insisted the building will be open to all, including non-Muslims.