A high-profile Muslim religious service held by Turkey’s leading ultranationalist party in an ancient Armenian church has sent shockwaves through Armenia.
The Jamestown Foundation reported:
A high-profile Muslim religious service with government permission, held by Turkey’s leading ultranationalist party in an ancient Armenian church has sent shockwaves through Armenia and its worldwide Diaspora, further reducing the prospects for Turkish-Armenian reconciliation. The resulting uproar will make the Armenian government more cautious in possible US attempts to revive its ill-fated “football diplomacy” with Ankara. The service was also a blow to civil society efforts to break enduring Armenian stereotypes about Turks.
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The opposition Nationalist Movement Party (MHP) rallied hundreds of supporters on October 1 for a Friday prayer service at the eleventh century Holy Virgin cathedral in Ani, the once thriving capital of a medieval Armenian kingdom, less than two weeks after a landmark Christian liturgy at another Armenian holy site in eastern Turkey. The Turkish government portrayed the September 19 mass at the tenth century Holy Cross church on Akhtamar Island in Lake Van as proof of its goodwill towards the Armenians.
The Akhtamar church fell into disrepair following the 1915 mass killings and deportations of Armenians in the Ottoman Empire, which many countries and historians regard as the first genocide of the twentieth century. It was thoroughly renovated and turned into a state museum in March 2007. The Turkish government, which spent $1.5 million on the renovation, has since resisted calls to return the church to its previous owner, the Istanbul Patriarchate of the Armenian Apostolic Church. It has only allowed Turkey’s remaining Armenian community to hold religious serves on the tiny island once a year.
Ankara’s failure to honor its reported pledge to restore a cross at the top of the temple by September 19 provided another source of controversy, leading many Armenians to dismiss the event as a publicity stunt. Turkish authorities quietly placed the cross back on the church dome on September 30 (Yerkir-Media TV, www.tert.am), a development that was completely overshadowed by the “namaz,” or Muslim prayer, in Ani on the following day.
The MHP made no secret of the fact that the prayer service was a response to the Akhtamar mass. The party’s senior leader, Devlet Bahceli, personally led a crowd of several hundred nationalists into the ruins of Ani, located on the Turkish-Armenian border, to the accompaniment of Ottoman military marches played by a Janissary-style brass band. Turkish television images showed the crowd waving Turkish flags and chanting “Allahu Akbar” (God is great) before saying prayers in and around the Armenian cathedral.