YEREVAN -- Hundreds of Turkish nationalists have performed Muslim prayers in one of the most important historical Armenian churches in a high-profile ceremony authorized by Turkey's government, RFE/RL's Armenian Service reports.
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 on Akhtamar Island in Lake Van saw its first religious service in nearly a century less than two weeks ago.
On October 1, 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 accompanied it.
Participants carried Turkish flags and chanted "God is great" during the procession.
Bahceli and senior MHP figures from across Turkey knelt 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 structure.
Click photo for enlarged SLIDE SHOW of Ani's ruins
Built by an Armenian royal dynasty in 1001, 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 the 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 as saying this week.
Bahceli reportedly did not make any statements at the scene, but was to address supporters in the nearby city of Kars later in the day.
The Muslim prayer session will likely anger many in Armenia and its worldwide diaspora. Armenians have long accused Turkey of systematically destroying traces of the ancient Armenian civilization that existed on its current territory until the World War I-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.
The Muslim religious ceremony in Ani and any Armenian uproar could further strain already tense Turkish-Armenian relations. Normalization of those ties has been a key U.S. policy goal in the region.
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 September 30 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 Christian services in Akhtamar and at an ancient Greek Orthodox Church that were permitted by the Turkish government.
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.
"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."
Nalci said the cross was placed back on the church dome on September 30 and was likely to 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. "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.