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Members of Turkey’s main nationalist opposition party are reportedly planning to gather in an 11th century Armenian cathedral Friday for a politically motivated Islamic prayer that is bound to infuriate Armenians.


Turkish newspapers reported on Tuesday that authorities in the northeastern Kars region have received a formal permission application from the local branch of the Nationalist Movement Party (MHP).

They said its chairman informed dozens of local MHP activists and supporters that the prayer service will take place at the Holy Virgin Cathedral in Ani, the ruined capital of a medieval Armenian kingdom located near the city of Kars, on the existing Turkish-Armenian border.

Built in 1001 A.D. by one of the most celebrated architects of medieval Armenia, Trdat, the church was the largest building in the walled and once prosperous city. It is one of the few surviving examples of the ancient Armenian civilization that existed in what is now eastern Turkey until the 1915 mass killings and deportations of Armenians in the Ottoman Empire.

Devlet Bahcheli, leader of Nationalist Movement Party in Turkey, undated
According to some historians, it was converted into a mosque after Armenia was conquered by the Seljuk Turks in the late 11th century. Official Turkish sources still refer to it Fethiye Mosque.

Some Turkish newspapers suggested that the MHP’s intention to use it as a Muslim worship site is a response to the September 19 landmark mass in another, 10th century Armenian church in eastern Turkey. However, party leaders attributed the politically explosive move to domestic politics and, in particular, their tense relations with the ruling Justice and Development Party (AKP) led by Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan.

In the words of Ara Gocunyan, editor of the Turkish-Armenian “Zhamanak” daily, the AKP’s victory in Turkey’s recent constitutional referendum was a serious blow to the MHP. “Apparently, the party is thus trying to revive its fortunes,” he told RFE/RL’s Armenia service.

Citing the Turkish press, Gocunyan said Turkey’s Culture Minister Ertugrul Gunay has warned that the Friday prayer at the Ani church will be deemed illegal if it turns into a “collective demonstration.” Turks can pray there only as “individual citizens,” Gocunyan quoted Gunay as saying.

Newspaper reports also said that the MHP’s top leader, Devlet Bahceli, will also attend the prayer. However, the party has not yet confirmed those reporters, according to Aris Nalci, a journalist with another Istanbul-based Armenian paper, “Agos.”

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