DIYARBAKIR, Turkey (Reuters) - Turkey resumed mass prayers at a limited number of mosques on Friday after a break of more than two months, as Ankara eased restrictions imposed to curb the coronavirus outbreak.
Turkey suspended prayers in March among a range of measures including stay-at-home orders, travel bans and closures of shops and restaurants. However, Ankara has started to ease restrictions after a decline in infection and death rates.
Thousands of worshippers headed to mosques across Turkey for communal prayers on Friday.
“We were experiencing a troublesome period emotionally and in terms of our faith,” said Emrullah Ezgin, a clothing seller in the southeastern city of Diyarbakir. “Thank God, it started today despite the measures, being able to pray makes us happy.”
Alongside the reopening of mosques, President Tayyip Erdogan said on Thursday intercity travel restrictions will be lifted and cafes, restaurants, gyms, museums, and beaches will reopen on June 1.
The resumption of communal worship was regulated by strict guidelines to minimize infection risks, limited to certain mosques and outdoor public spaces, the religious affairs directorate (Diyanet) said.
Initially, only Friday, noon and afternoon prayers will be permitted and worshippers must wear face masks, Diyanet said last week. Everyone must bring their own prayer mats or use single-use mats provided at mosques.
Limits were set on the number of worshippers and the ground will be marked to ensure social distancing, it said.
Koranic verses were to be recited at the Hagia Sophia on Friday to commemorate the conquest of Istanbul in 1453, a rare occurrence at the UNESCO World Heritage site.
Hagia Sophia was the main cathedral in Christendom for 900 years before becoming a mosque for 500 years until 1935, when it was converted to a museum. Last year, Erdogan said he planned to change its status back to a mosque.
Additional reporting by Tuvan Gumrukcu; Editing by Daren Butler and David Evans