Armenians gather for first service in 95 years

The National, UAE
Sept 19 2010

Armenians gather for first service in 95 years

Thomas Seibert, Foreign Correspondent
Last Updated: September 19. 2010 7:55PM UAE / September 19. 2010 3:55PM GMT

ISTANBUL // Church bells rang out on the island of Akdamar in eastern
Anatolia for the first time in 95 years yesterday as thousands of
Armenians from Turkey and other countries gathered for a historic
religious ceremony in a region that was a centre of Armenian life
until the massacres of the First World War.

`This is a positive step,’ Petros Boyacan, an Armenian cardiologist
from Syria, said in a telephone interview. He was speaking from
outside the Church of the Holy Cross on Akdamar in Lake Van near the
city of Van. `Tolerance is a very good thing. People are the same

Live pictures from Turkish television stations showed a procession of
clergymen dressed in robes and carrying flags and candles filing into
the church that was built in the 10th century and rescued from decay
by a government-sponsored renovation programme five years ago.

`We are very happy,’ an Armenian woman from Istanbul told the Turkish
NTV news channel. The church could hold only a few dozen guests. Most
of the visitors followed the service from a square outside the

The ceremony on Akdamar attracted about 3,000 guests, said Mustafa
Aladag, a lawyer in Van who organised an initiative to welcome the
Armenians. Most came from Istanbul and the south-eastern city of
Diyarbakir, but there were also Armenians from Armenia itself, as well
as from the United States, Europe, Iran and Syria. The church on
Akdamar is officially designated as a museum. But from now on,
Armenians will have permission to celebrate mass in the church once a

`This is a very important development,’ Mr Aladag said about the mass.
`It is a step towards overcoming problems between Armenians, Kurds and

Coming just one week after Turks approved wide-ranging constitutional
reforms, the service on Akdamar marked another effort by Turkey to
strengthen basic rights, including religious freedom. Turkey is trying
to burnish its image in an effort to win admission to the European

The permission to hold the mass followed a similar church service for
Greek Orthodox Christians in an ancient monastery in north-eastern
Anatolia last month and was seen as a gesture by Ankara towards
Turkey’s Christian minorities.

Akdamar carries special significance for Kurds, Turks and Armenians.
The region around Van, predominantly Kurdish today, had a sizeable
Armenian population until the First World War. The Armenians were
killed or driven out and many atrocities were committed by both Turks
and Kurds. The situation in Van was different from other Anatolian
towns and cities, where hundreds of thousands of unarmed Armenian
civilians were killed or sent on death marches in 1915. In Van,
Armenian rebels also killed Turks and Kurds.

Relations between Turkey and Armenia are burdened by the memory of
what Armenia and many international scholars call the modern world’s
first genocide. Turkey rejects that term.

Last year, Turkey and Armenia signed protocols designed to pave the
way towards a normalisation of their relations, with an exchange of
ambassadors and the opening of their joint border, which has been
closed since the early 1990s. But the process has stalled.

Recep Tayyip Erdogan, Turkey’s prime minister, said his government
hoped the gesture would help to kick start the difficult process of
rapprochement with Armenia. `The mass on Akdamar is a statement of our
world view,’ Mr Erdogan said last week. `I hope it will not remain

Armenians in Van thanked Mr Erdogan for the gesture.

In Van, many people welcomed the Armenians. When a local newspaper
called on citizens to billet Armenian visitors because the city’s
hotels were fully booked, thousands signed up.

The event also was marked with a concert by the Turkish-born Armenian
pianist Sahan Arzruni on the eve of the mass.

Initially, about 5,000 people were expected in Van, but Armenian
community leaders say a row about whether a new cross would be fitted
to the church in time for the ceremony led to a boycott call by
several Armenian groups from outside Turkey who argued that a church
without a cross on the roof would not be complete. The cross will be
attached to the church at the end of the month, authorities have said.

Bishop Aram Atesyan, the acting head of the Armenian patriarchate in
Istanbul, told Turkish authorities in Van that the boycott had led to
a drop of visitors at the service. `We could not reach the figures
that we originally thought,’ the bishop said according to Turkish news
reports. Bishop Atesyan, the de facto spiritual leader of Turkey’s
Armenians because of an illness of Patriarch Mesrob II, conducted
yesterday’s mass.

About 50 policemen on the island and 500 officers on the pier at the
shore of the lake from where boats brought the Armenians to Akdamar
provided security. There were no reports of disturbances.

But participants of the church service were acutely aware that one
mass alone will not be enough to ensure reconciliation. `One flower
does not mean it’s summer,’ said Dr Boyacan, the cardiologist from
Syria. `This is one flower.’

From: A. Papazian

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