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.
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.
“I think it is important to at least remember the mosque where Sultan Alparslan prayed when he entered these lands,” MHP Kars deputy Gurcan Dagdas was quoted by Reuters news agency as saying this week.
Bahceli reportedly did not make any statements at the scene. He was due to address supporters in the nearby city of Kars late on Friday.
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.
Still, Armenia’s government and the Echmiadzin-based leadership of the Armenian Apostolic Church did not immediately react to the development. The Foreign Ministry in Yerevan refused to comment, while the church press office did not respond to phone calls throughout the day.
The Muslim religious ceremony in Ani and the likely Armenian uproar could further strain the already tense Turkish-Armenian relations. Their normalization has been a key U.S. policy goal in the region.
The Ani rally coincided with the start of the autumn session of Turkey’s parliament. Some analysts believe that it also marked the launch of the MHP's campaign for parliamentary elections due in June 2011.
“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.”
The Turkish government’s failure to restore the cross in time for the September 19 mass in the Akhtamar church angered Armenians around the world and led many of them to boycott the event. Ankara has attributed the delay to technical issues.