Crowds of Muslim worshipers prayed on Friday in Istanbul in honor of Hagia Sophia for the first time as President Recep Tayyip Erdogan announced that it would be transformed from a monument to a mosque – a decision that delighted his Muslim followers as Christian leaders warned the possible change of religion.

Thousands of people – including the president and the chief ministers of the commission – attended the event in Istanbul’s Fatih region, as a helicopter flew around.

Worshipers stormed the outer courtyard and the surrounding streets, prompting the Istanbul governor to close the area out of concern for the coronavirus.

In the wake of the action on Turkish news channels, crowds could be seen in areas with high police to reach the mosque. A limited number of people were allowed to enter the prayer building. As part of the service, Erdogan quoted verses from the Quran.

Founded during the Byzantine period, the nearly 1,500-year-old building overlooking the Bosporus was the largest church in the Christian world for nearly a thousand years, then a Ottoman Islamic church hundreds of years before it was transformed into a museum in 1934 by Mustafa Kemal Ataturk.

Earlier this month, a high court in Turkey ruled against Hagia Sophia’s reputation as a museum, defeating Turkish Muslims and foreigners who had been forcing the site to be converted into a mosque. Some Christian religious leaders, including Pope Francis, have expressed concern, while Trump officials say they are “disappointed” by Turkey’s decision.

The biggest criticism comes from Audrey Azoulay, director-general of UNESCO, in a statement earlier this month that she “deeply regrets” the decision to change Hagia Sophia’s status, or “Sacred Wisdom” in Greek.

“Hagia Sophia is an expert in architectural art and a unique testimony to the interdependence of Europe and Asia over the centuries. Its status as a museum reflects the nature of its universal heritage, and makes it a powerful symbol of dialogue, ”said Azoulay.

Erdogan said the mosque – until recently the most visited flower in Turkey – would remain open to people from all over the world and that admission to the mosque would be free.

Pictures released by Erdogan’s office on Thursday, during a visit by the president and his wife Emine Erdogan, show a change of scenario as the building is set to meet with church prayers. Thousands of square feet of colored furniture were set up under marble floors, and white curtains were stretched out to cover the roof of the house, which contained Christian art, which was to be covered during prayer.

“Beloved, what is more sad than an empty Muslim?” This was stated by Minister of Religious Affairs Ali Erbas during a sermon at the Mosque on Friday.

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