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story.lead_photo.caption The Byzantine-era Hagia Sophia, as seen from the air, is one of Istanbul’s main tourist attractions. The 6th century building in the historic Sultanahmet district, once a mosque, was turned into a museum in 1934. More photos at arkansasonline.com/72turkey/. (AP)

ISTANBUL -- In its more than 1,400-year existence, the majestic domed structure of Hagia Sophia in Istanbul has served as the Byzantine Empire's main cathedral, a mosque under the Ottoman Empire and a museum under modern Turkey, attracting millions of tourists each year.

The sixth-century building is now at the center of a heated debate among nationalist, conservative and religious groups who are pressing for it to be reconverted back into a mosque and those who believe the UNESCO World Heritage site should remain a museum, underscoring Istanbul's status as a bridge between continents and cultures.

Turkey's Council of State, the country's highest administrative court, begins reviewing today a request by a group devoted to reverting Hagia Sophia into a mosque. They are pressing to annul a 1934 decision by the Council of Ministers, led by secular Turkey's founder Mustafa Kemal Ataturk, that turned the historic structure into a museum. A decision could come later today or within two weeks, the state-run Anadolu Agency reported.

President Recep Tayyip Erdogan, who leads an Islamic-oriented party, has previously spoken about possibly changing Hagia Sophia's status to a mosque but has said his government would await the Council of State's decision.

Gallery: Hagia Sophia in Istanbul

[Gallery not loading above? Click here for more photos » arkansasonline.com/72turkey/]

Analysts believe that Erdogan -- a populist, polarizing leader who in nearly two decades in office has frequently blamed Turkey's secular elites for the country's problems -- is using the Hagia Sophia debate to consolidate his conservative base and to distract attention from Turkey's substantial economic woes.

"This is not just a debate about a building," said Soner Cagaptay, Turkey analyst for the Washington Institute. "Ataturk established Hagia Sophia as a museum to underline his vision of secularizing Turkey. And nearly 100 years later, Erdogan is trying to do the opposite."

"[Erdogan] feels the pressure of popular support dwindling and therefore he wants to use issues that he hopes will remobilize his right-wing base around nativist, populist, anti-elitist topics," said Cagaptay, author of the book "Erdogan's Empire."

In the past few years, Turkey has been allowing readings from the Koran inside Hagia Sophia and Erdogan himself has recited prayers there. This year, he oversaw by videoconference the recital of the "prayer of conquest" on the anniversary of the Ottoman conquest.

On Tuesday, Istanbul-based Ecumenical Patriarch Bartholomew I, considered the spiritual leader of the world's Orthodox Christians, noted that Hagia Sophia had served as a place of worship for Christians for 900 years and for Muslims for 500 years.

"As a museum, Hagia Sophia can function as a place and symbol of encounter, dialogue and peaceful coexistence of peoples and cultures, mutual understand and solidarity between Christianity and Islam," he said.

U.S. Secretary of State Mike Pompeo also urged Turkey on Wednesday to keep Hagia Sophia as a museum to serve as "an exemplar of its commitment to respect faith traditions and diverse history." He called on the government in Ankara to ensure the structure remains "accessible to all."

Hours later, Foreign Ministry spokesman Hami Aksoy expressed "bewilderment" at Pompeo's comments, saying Turkey has been protecting Hagia Sophia's "historic, cultural and sentimental" values since the conquest.

Aksoy added that the issue was domestic: "Hagia Sophia, like all cultural assets on our lands, is the property of Turkey."

Information for this article was contributed by Elena Becatoros and Matthew Lee of The Associated Press.

An aerial view of the Byzantine-era Hagia Sophia, one of Istanbul's main tourist attractions in the historic Sultanahmet district of Istanbul, Saturday, April 25, 2020. The 6th-century building is now at the center of a heated debate between conservative groups who want it to be reconverted into a mosque and those who believe the World Heritage site should remain a museum. (AP Photo)
An aerial view of the Byzantine-era Hagia Sophia, one of Istanbul's main tourist attractions in the historic Sultanahmet district of Istanbul, Saturday, April 25, 2020. The 6th-century building is now at the center of a heated debate between conservative groups who want it to be reconverted into a mosque and those who believe the World Heritage site should remain a museum. (AP Photo)
People visit the main chamber of Hagia Sophia. Turkey has been allowing readings inside, and Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan has recited prayers there.
(AP/Emrah Gurel)
People visit the main chamber of Hagia Sophia. Turkey has been allowing readings inside, and Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan has recited prayers there. (AP/Emrah Gurel)
An aerial view of the Byzantine-era Hagia Sophia, on Saturday, April 25, 2020, one of Istanbul's main tourist attractions in the historic Sultanahmet district of Istanbul. The 6th-century building is now at the center of a heated debate between conservative groups who want it to be reconverted into a mosque and those who believe the World Heritage site should remain a museum. (AP Photo)
An aerial view of the Byzantine-era Hagia Sophia, on Saturday, April 25, 2020, one of Istanbul's main tourist attractions in the historic Sultanahmet district of Istanbul. The 6th-century building is now at the center of a heated debate between conservative groups who want it to be reconverted into a mosque and those who believe the World Heritage site should remain a museum. (AP Photo)
People visit the Byzantine-era Hagia Sophia, one of Istanbul's main tourist attractions in the historic Sultanahmet district of Istanbul, Thursday, June 25, 2020. The 6th-century building is now at the center of a heated debate between conservative groups who want it to be reconverted into a mosque and those who believe the World Heritage site should remain a museum. (AP Photo/Emrah Gurel)
People visit the Byzantine-era Hagia Sophia, one of Istanbul's main tourist attractions in the historic Sultanahmet district of Istanbul, Thursday, June 25, 2020. The 6th-century building is now at the center of a heated debate between conservative groups who want it to be reconverted into a mosque and those who believe the World Heritage site should remain a museum. (AP Photo/Emrah Gurel)
People visit the Byzantine-era Hagia Sophia, one of Istanbul's main tourist attractions in the historic Sultanahmet district of Istanbul on Thursday, June 25, 2020. The 6th-century building is now at the center of a heated debate between conservative groups who want it to be reconverted into a mosque and those who believe the World Heritage site should remain a museum. (AP Photo/Emrah Gurel)
People visit the Byzantine-era Hagia Sophia, one of Istanbul's main tourist attractions in the historic Sultanahmet district of Istanbul on Thursday, June 25, 2020. The 6th-century building is now at the center of a heated debate between conservative groups who want it to be reconverted into a mosque and those who believe the World Heritage site should remain a museum. (AP Photo/Emrah Gurel)
A view of the Byzantine-era Hagia Sophia, one of Istanbul's main tourist attractions in the historic Sultanahmet district of Istanbul, Thursday, June 25, 2020. The 6th-century building is now at the center of a heated debate between conservative groups who want it to be reconverted into a mosque and those who believe the World Heritage site should remain a museum. (AP Photo/Emrah Gurel)
A view of the Byzantine-era Hagia Sophia, one of Istanbul's main tourist attractions in the historic Sultanahmet district of Istanbul, Thursday, June 25, 2020. The 6th-century building is now at the center of a heated debate between conservative groups who want it to be reconverted into a mosque and those who believe the World Heritage site should remain a museum. (AP Photo/Emrah Gurel)
FILE - In this Friday, Aug. 17, 2018 file photo, visitors walk towards the Byzantine-era Hagia Sophia, one of Istanbul's main tourist attractions, in the historic Sultanahmet district of Istanbul. The 6th-century building is now at the center of a heated debate between conservative groups who want it to be reconverted into a mosque and those who believe the World Heritage site should remain a museum. (AP Photo/Lefteris Pitarakis, File)
FILE - In this Friday, Aug. 17, 2018 file photo, visitors walk towards the Byzantine-era Hagia Sophia, one of Istanbul's main tourist attractions, in the historic Sultanahmet district of Istanbul. The 6th-century building is now at the center of a heated debate between conservative groups who want it to be reconverted into a mosque and those who believe the World Heritage site should remain a museum. (AP Photo/Lefteris Pitarakis, File)
FILE - In this Saturday, March 16, 2019 file photo, backdropped by Hagia Sophia, the Byzantine-era cathedral that was turned into a mosque and now serves as a museum, demonstrators protest holding a Turkish flag. The 6th-century building is now at the center of a heated debate between conservative groups who want it to be reconverted into a mosque and those who believe the World Heritage site should remain a museum. (AP Photo/Lefteris Pitarakis, File)
FILE - In this Saturday, March 16, 2019 file photo, backdropped by Hagia Sophia, the Byzantine-era cathedral that was turned into a mosque and now serves as a museum, demonstrators protest holding a Turkish flag. The 6th-century building is now at the center of a heated debate between conservative groups who want it to be reconverted into a mosque and those who believe the World Heritage site should remain a museum. (AP Photo/Lefteris Pitarakis, File)
FILE - In this Friday, May 29, 2020 file photo, a Muslim cleric recites the "prayer conquest" from the Quran, Islam's holy book, inside Istanbul's 6th-century Hagia Sophia — the main cathedral of the Byzantine Empire which was converted into a mosque with the Ottoman conquest of the city, then known as Constantinople, in 1453, in Istanbul. The 6th-century building is now at the center of a heated debate between conservative groups who want it to be reconverted into a mosque and those who believe the World Heritage site should remain a museum. (AP Photo)
FILE - In this Friday, May 29, 2020 file photo, a Muslim cleric recites the "prayer conquest" from the Quran, Islam's holy book, inside Istanbul's 6th-century Hagia Sophia — the main cathedral of the Byzantine Empire which was converted into a mosque with the Ottoman conquest of the city, then known as Constantinople, in 1453, in Istanbul. The 6th-century building is now at the center of a heated debate between conservative groups who want it to be reconverted into a mosque and those who believe the World Heritage site should remain a museum. (AP Photo)
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