Turkish Government Allows Muslim Prayer in Armenian Church

ANAKARA (RFE/RL)–The Turkish government allowed on Thursday the country’s’ leading ultranationalist party to hold a Muslim religious service in a medieval Armenian church, RFE/RL reported.

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

CNN-Turk television reported that the Turkish Ministry of Culture and Tourism has given the green light to the politically motivated service, which is expected to be attended by the MHP’s top leader, Devlet Bahceli.

Oktay Aktas, who heads the party branch in Kars, confirmed the information later on Thursday. “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, Muhammed 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 that the Friday prayer will attract thousands of Turks. It said nationalist activists from neighboring Azerbaijan also plan to attend the event.

Built in 1001 A.D., 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 1915 Armenian Genocide.

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.

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