Hundreds of Turkish nationalists performed Muslim prayers in one of the most important Armenian churches of the Middle Ages on Friday, in a high-profile ceremony authorized by Turkey’s government.
The political action organized by the opposition Nationalist Movement Party (MHP) followed the reported restoration of a cross atop another medieval Armenian church located in eastern Turkey. The 10th century church of the Holy Cross perched on Akhtamar Island in Lake Van saw its first Mass in nearly a century less than two weeks ago.
Turkish television images showed MHP leader Devlet Bahceli leading several hundred supporters to the 11th century Holy Virgin Cathedral at the ruins of Ani, the capital of a medieval Armenian kingdom. It is located in Turkey’s northeastern Kars region, less than one kilometer away from modern-day Armenia.
The crowd entered the once thriving city through its well-preserved main gate and marched to the cathedral as an Ottoman-style Janissary brass band accompanying it played along. Participants carried Turkish flags and chanted “Allahu Akhbar” (God is great) during the procession, news reports from Ani said.
Bahceli and senior MHP figures from across Turkey knelt down and pressed their foreheads to the ground in the ensuing Friday prayer led by a Sunni Muslim cleric. The latter could be seen addressing the MHP flock from a makeshift podium erected inside the Christian temple.
Built by an Armenian royal dynasty in 1001 A.D., the cathedral has for centuries been regarded as a masterpiece of medieval Armenian architecture. According to official Turkish sources, Seljuk Sultan Alparslan converted it into a mosque when he captured Ani and surrounding regions in 1064. The Seljuks were driven out of much of historical Armenia a century later.
The Muslim prayer is bound to infuriate many in Armenia and its worldwide Diaspora. They have long accused Turkey of systematically destroying traces of the ancient Armenian civilization that existed on its current territory until the World War One-era mass killings and deportations of Armenians in the Ottoman Empire.
Turkish newspapers reported that a senior diplomat from the U.S. Embassy in Ankara met with the MHP’s deputy parliamentary leader, Mehmet Sandir, on Thursday to discuss the Friday prayer. “Why are you going to Ani?” the diplomat was quoted as asking. Sandir reportedly linked the action with the recent religious services in Akhtamar as well as an ancient Greek Orthodox church permitted by the Turkish government.
“This gesture was addressed to Turks, rather than Armenians,” said Aris Nalci, an editor at the Turkish-Armenian daily “Agos.” “How else can you explain the fact that on the one hand, they hold a Friday prayer in Ani and the other, restore the cross on the Akhtamar church.”
According to Nalci, the cross was placed back on the church dome on Thursday and will likely be consecrated by Archbishop Aram Ateshian, the spiritual leader of Turkey’s surviving Armenian community, this weekend. “You couldn’t go to Akhtamar island and take pictures there today,” he told RFE/RL’s Armenian service. “I would link that with the Ani ‘namaz’ (Muslim prayer). A fairly large group of nationalists is in Anatolia right now.”

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