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Turkey Approves Muslim Prayer Service In Armenian Church

The Holy Virgin Cathedral was built in the 11th century
The Holy Virgin Cathedral was built in the 11th century
YEREVAN -- The Turkish government has decided to allow the country's leading ultranationalist party to hold a Muslim religious service in a medieval Armenian church.

The opposition Nationalist Movement Party (MHP) announced earlier this week its intention to rally supporters for a Friday prayer at the 11th century Holy Virgin Cathedral in Ani, the ruined capital of a medieval Armenian kingdom located in Turkey's northeastern Kars region. The party had asked regional authorities and the Ankara government for permission.

CNN-Turk television reported that the Turkish Culture and Tourism Ministry has approved the religious service, which is expected to be attended by MHP top leader Devlet Bahceli.

Oktay Aktas, who heads the party branch in Kars, confirmed the information later on September 30. "We are now awaiting Mr. Bahceli," the official Anatolia news agency quoted him as saying.

Aktas said that the MHP action was permitted after a special meeting held by Kars's deputy governor, Muhammad Lutfi Kotan, and other local officials. According to Anatolia, Kotan also discussed the matter with the region's Sunni Muslim leader. It is not yet clear whether the local office of the mufti will authorize or send any clerics to the prayer.

Citing Turkish media, the Russian Regnum news agency said the MHP hopes the Friday prayers will attract thousands of Turks. It said nationalist activists from neighboring Azerbaijan also plan to attend the event.

Built in 1001, the Ani cathedral was one of the largest churches of medieval Armenia. It is now one of the few surviving examples of the ancient Armenian civilization that existed in what is now eastern Turkey until the World War I-era mass killings and deportations of Armenians in the Ottoman Empire.

According to official Turkish sources, the church was converted into a mosque after much of Armenia was seized by the Seljuk Turks in the late 11th century. They still refer to it as Fethiye Mosque.

The MHP action will come less than two weeks after the landmark mass held in a 10th century Armenian church located in eastern Turkey. Ankara allowed the one-off service at the Surp Khach (Holy Cross) church on Akhtamar Island in Lake Van in an effort to showcase its stated tolerance and goodwill towards Armenians.

Armenia's leading political groups and the Armenian Apostolic Church dismissed it as a publicity stunt. They pointed to the Turkish authorities' failure to restore a cross on the church dome in time for the ceremony.

The latest MHP action in Ani -- sanctioned by Ankara -- is likely to spark an uproar in Armenia and its worldwide diaspora.

Some commentators have suggested that the Ani prayer is the Turkish nationalists' response to the Akhtamar mass. But others attribute it to domestic Turkish politics.

According to Regnum, a Turkish parliamentarian representing the ruling AK Party, Mahmud Esad Guven, denounced the upcoming prayer as an illegal "political show" connected with the Akhtamar service.