ISTANBUL -- Museum-turned-mosque Hagia Sophia held its first prayer service here Friday with Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan among the hundreds inside the World Heritage site.
Erdogan recited from the Quran before the start of prayers, while imagery of Jesus and the Virgin Mary on the apse was covered.
"Now, I hope it will continue to serve all believers forever as a mosque," state media quoted the president as saying later.
At the urging of right-wing political groups and religious conservatives, Erdogan's government ordered July 10 that the Hagia Sophia be turned back into a mosque.
The change has drawn controversy but enjoys greater support than opposition among the Turkish public, polls show. Throngs visiting from across the nation joined in prayer outside the Hagia Sophia during Friday's service.
Leaders of the Greek and Russian Orthodox churches and the Roman Catholic Church have denounced the decision. U.S. and European Union officials have also expressed disappointment.
Originally built in the Roman Empire, the Hagia Sophia was rebuilt in its current form in the sixth century as an Orthodox cathedral. The Ottoman Empire converted it into a mosque in the 15th century.
Mustafa Kemal Ataturk, the founder of modern Turkey, designated the landmark a museum in 1934 to symbolize the country's commitment to secularism.
As a UNESCO World Heritage site, the Hagia Sophia will continue to accept tourists outside worship hours, with all Christian artwork to be uncovered for guests.