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.
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.
One of the largest Armenian churches of the Middle Ages, the cathedral was first consecrated in 1001 after more than a decade of construction ordered by Armenian Bagratid King, Smbat II, and completed by his successor’s wife, Queen Katranide. Seljuk Sultan Alparslan is believed to have converted it into a mosque when he conquered Ani and much of medieval Armenia in 1064. Turkish sources still refer to it as Fethiye Mosque.
Although some senior figures in Turkey’s ruling Justice and Development Party (AKP) reportedly disapproved of the MHP action, it was sanctioned by the authorities in Ankara and the northeastern Kars region encompassing Ani (CNN-Turk, Anatolia News Agency, September 30). A local Sunni Muslim cleric was authorized to lead the service from a makeshift podium erected inside the cathedral. The official stamp of approval only stoked the Armenian anger.
Officials in Yerevan declined to comment on the ceremony, leaving it to the Echmiadzin-based Mother See of the Armenian Apostolic Church to condemn it in unusually strong terms. In a written statement issued on October 2, the office of the church’s supreme leader, Catholicos Garegin II, implicated the Turkish government in the “political provocation that has nothing to do with … religious freedom,” adding that“the Turkish authorities are continuing their steps aimed at destroying Armenian monuments and misappropriating historical Armenian holy sites and cultural treasures. It is also evident that with this step Turkey is once again scuttling efforts by Armenia and the international community to … normalize Turkish-Armenian relations.”
Armenian scholars likewise linked the Turkish nationalist rally with the destruction of traces of the ancient Armenian civilization that had for centuries existed in what is now eastern Turkey. Hundreds of Armenian churches have been destroyed, ransacked or turned into mosques since the 1915 genocide. “We now have reason to be happy,” Samvel Karapetian, an expert on medieval Armenian architecture, commented sarcastically, “For centuries, our churches were desecrated and turned into toilets, whereas now they are only doing a ‘namaz’” (Kapital, October 2). “This is a slap to European civilization,” said Hayk Demoyan, the Director of the Armenian Genocide Museum-Institute (www.panorama.am, October 1).
Diaspora Armenian reaction was no less scathing, with the Coordination Council of Armenian organizations of France (CCAF) calling for international condemnation of the “profanation” of the Ani temple. “The Turkish authorities have once again lent themselves to an explosive exploitation of religious sentiments for nationalist aims,” the Paris-based umbrella group said in a statement (www.armenews.com, October 2).
The Ani service will likely make Armenia’s leadership even more suspicious of Ankara in the future. Ankara was already reeling from the collapse of the US-brokered normalization agreements signed by the two governments in Zurich one year ago. The Turkish side subsequently made their parliamentary ratification conditional on a resolution of the Karabakh conflict acceptable to Azerbaijan.
Armenian President, Serzh Sargsyan, responded by formally suspending the ratification process in Armenia’s parliament in April. The move failed to placate Armenian critics of his conciliatory line on Turkey which had been strongly endorsed by the West and the US in particular. Visiting Yerevan in July, US Secretary of State, Hillary Clinton, praised Sargsyan for not formally annulling the Turkish-Armenian agreements and urged Ankara to honor them. Turkish Foreign Minister, Ahmet Davutoglu, reaffirmed however, the Karabakh linkage in a speech delivered at Harvard University last week (www.armenialiberty, September 29).