Armenian Church In Turkey Reopens To Worship

Wall Street Journal , NY
Sept 19 2010

Armenian Church In Turkey Reopens To Worship

By Joe Parkinson

AKDAMAR ISLAND, Turkey (Dow Jones)–Turkey allowed Armenians to
worship at a symbolic but politically sensitive church here for the
first time since the collapse of the Ottoman Empire on Sunday, in a
service hailed by Turkish officials as a sign of growing tolerance for
religious minorities, but which underscored the lingering distrust
between Ankara and Yerevan.

The emotional two-hour mass at the Church of the Holy Cross–an iconic
landmark on Akdamar island in the turquoise waters of Lake Van in
Turkey’s poverty-stricken southeast region–was attended by about
1,000 people. But that was a fraction of the 5,000 visitors expected,
as a partial Armenian boycott saw thousands cancel their trips after
Turkish authorities refused to display a 440-pound cross on the
church’s roof, claiming it was too heavy and could damage the
structure. The 16.5-foot-tall cross instead was displayed next to the
belltower of the church.

Worshippers, the vast majority from the Armenian diaspora community,
packed into the small red-stone church or watched Orthodox priests
deliver the first liturgy there in almost 100 years on big-screen
televisions specially erected for the event. Some pilgrims, overcome
with emotion, held wooden crosses aloft as they prayed. Others
exchanged stories about the ancient Armenian civilization that once
existed in Turkey but was almost erased in 1915 in what many regard as
genocide. Turkey strongly denies that a genocide took place,
describing the killings as the tragic result of a civil war in which
all sides suffered.

Eighty year-old Lebanese Armenian Victoria Tutunjian, whose parents
fled to Beirut to escape those killings, said she “always hoped but
never imagined” she could come to pray here. “I’m so happy this
ceremony is taking place and I will come here every year until the day
I die. But Turks are still my enemy, and coming here and walking on
this soil is my revenge,” she said, clutching a small Armenian flag.

Other Turks and Armenians here were more positive about the service’s
significance. “This is a great day for all Armenians; I’m confident
things will start to change now,” said Tigran Abrahamian, a 45-year
old industrial engineer from Istanbul, who is married to a Turk and
brought his family to the service. Some 50,000 Armenians live in

Still, Muslim Turkey and Christian Armenia remain bitterly divided
over their troubled history. The border between them remains closed
despite U.S.-brokered peace accords signed last year.

For Armenians across the world, the Church of the Holy Cross,
abandoned in 1915 and reopened as a museum after a $1.5 million
restoration in 2007, has become symbolic of the deportation and
killings at the hands of Ottoman forces. The controversy over the
church’s cross underlines the mistrust that exists between the
neighbors. In Yerevan on Sunday, 1,500 people attended an alternative
religious service at a genocide memorial that denounced the Akdamar
service as a publicity stunt.

“Our mission for today was to show that the Turkish government should
not use our heritage as a propaganda tool to pretend that they are
tolerant,” said Hayk Demoyan, director of Yerevan’s Genocide Museum,
in a telephone interview after he addressed the crowds.

Turkish Culture and Tourism Minister Ertugrul Gunay said that the
government had agreed to the Armenian religious service in good faith
and that nationalists on both sides were exploiting the event for
political purposes.

Sunday’s service was the second of two special church openings
recently permitted by the Turkish government after Ankara in August
allowed Christians to pray at a Greek Orthodox monastery in Sumela, in
the Black Sea region, for the first time since the country’s creation.

Often criticized for its treatment of Christian minorities, Ankara has
promoted the services as proof of its growing commitment to religious
tolerance. Critics say the tightly controlled services are a carefully
choreographed public-relations campaign designed to boost Turkey’s
prospects of joining the European Union, for which it is a candidate.

“Yes, this is a PR stunt by the Turkish government to show it is being
respectful to its minorities … but, frankly, if it means that Turkey
and Armenia can move closer towards resolving their differences, then
who cares,” said Ara Sarafian, director of the Gomidas Institute, a
London-based research organization.

Local businesses in the region of Van are supportive of improved
relations, hoping religious tourists would help the region profit.
Gaye Akay, a hotelier born in Van but based in Ankara, is planning to
open the region’s first five-star hotel next year. “We think this is
the beginning of something really special,” she said. “More Armenians
and international tourists will start coming here and spending their

Negotiations to open the border between Turkey and Armenia went into
deep freeze, as neither side ratified a deal outlined last year and
both sides accused the other of setting additional conditions.

From: A. Papazian

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