Turkey,in a symbolic move that many expect will help ease long-standing animosity withArmenia,yesterday reopened an ancient Armenian church after a three-year restoration.
But the Akhtamar Church, located on an island in Lake Van in eastern Anatolia, will serve as a monument and museum, despiteArmenian demands that it be opened for worship. The spiritual leader of Turkey's Armenian community, Patriarch MesrobII, called for legal permission for use of the 10th century building for churchservices, at least one day a year, and for an annual festival on Akdamar Island, where the church is located."Prayers made in a historic church will bring people closer… This willhelp establish peace, which has not taken root between Turks andArmenians," Mesrob II said at the opening ceremony. "I believe frommy heart that the Turkish government will allow these."
Culture Minister Atilla Koç, who attended the ceremony, was non-committal onMesrob II's request, saying he could not decide on the issue alone. Therestoration of the church -- one of the most precious remnants of Armenianculture from 1,000 years ago -- has widely been seen as a positive message byTurkey to improve ties with Armenia and its own Armenian community, though Koçhas emphasized that it was not meant to be a good-will gesture, saying it washis duty as a Cabinet minister to protect the country's historical heritage. Turkey has no diplomatic ties with Armenia but still invited Armenian officials tothe ceremony, and Armenia'sDeputy Culture Minister Gagik Gyurjyan, accompanied by a 20-member delegation,including officials, historians and experts, attended the ceremony.
The $1.5-million restoration of Akhtamar -- known as Church of Surp Khach,or the Holy Cross -- comes on the heels of a highly emotional funeral forTurkish Armenian journalist Hrant Dink, assassinated by a nationalist teenagedgunman on Jan. 19. In what was seen as an unprecedented outpouring of sympathy,tens of thousands of mourners at his funeral raised banners reading "Weare all Armenians."
Yesterday's ceremony was attended by a group of 300 VIPs transported to Akdamar Island by boat. The participantsincluded Koç, the Armenian delegation, Mesrob II, US Embassy Deputy Chief ofMission Nancy McEldowney and Israeli Ambassador Pinhas Avivi as well asArmenians who traveled to Turkeyfor the occasion.
"Let me have a contribution to peace. I open this with prayers,"Koç said as he cut the ribbon with Mesrob II to open the church, which has notbeen operational for nine decades. The ceremony was broadcast live on Turkishand Armenian television.
"Akhtamar Church is a sanctuary for humanity," said Turkey'srenowned pianist Tuluyhan Uðurlu after a mini concert before the opening."The love for that church is the same as love for Hagia Sophia (achurch-turned-mosque that was later converted into a museum), Süleymaniye(Mosque), Sultan Ahmet (Mosque) and Neve Shalom (Synagogue)."
One of the finest surviving monuments of Armenian culture 1,000 years ago,the church had deteriorated over the past century, with rainwater seepingthrough the collapsed, conical dome. Mesrob II expressed gratitude for therestoration of the sandstone structure, saying it looked much better ascompared to its pre-restoration situation.
"This is a show of Turkey'srespect for history and culture," said Van Governor Özdemir Çakacak.Noting that Turkeyhas stepped up restoration of historical monuments over past years, OrhanDüzgün, who oversees the state department for preservation of culturalartifacts and museums, said, "We could not have ignored the artifacts ofour Armenian citizens, and we did not."
But although the Armenian delegation was visibly pleased with the reopening,the Turkish move left Armenian demands for the church being available forreligious services unsatisfied. Although the building will now operate as amuseum, some of the participants attending the ceremony were seen placingcandles inside the church and making the sign of the cross.
Earlier this week, the head of the Armenian Orthodox Church, Karekin II,refused to attend the reopening ceremony because the church will operate as amuseum, not as a church. A similar controversy focused on whether a cross wouldbe erected on the steeple of the Akhtamar Church. Earlier thismonth, Patriarch Mesrob II sent a written request to the Culture Ministry askingthat a cross, prepared by the Armenian Patriarchate itself, be placed on thesteeple of the church. Gyurjyan, asked why the level of participationfrom Armeniawas low, suggested that it could be due to the discontent over the missingcross.
Koç, responding to questions yesterday, suggested that placement of thecross was still a possibility, saying a committee of scientists should decideon the matter. On Wednesday, the Foreign Ministry, which has been asked itsopinion on the matter by the Culture Ministry, said Ankara was considering the request.
"Maybe one day," said Mesrob II, when answering a question as towhether a cross would be placed on the church.
The reopening also fell short of breaking the ice in relations between Turkey and Armenia. Yerevanwelcomed the restoration but said Turkeyshould open its border gate with Armenia, closed for more than adecade, to facilitate the Armenian delegation's travel. Ankara,however, rejected the request, pushing the Armenian delegation to travel to Turkey via Georgia.
Turkey severed itsrelations with Armenia inprotest of its support for efforts worldwide to win international recognitionfor Armenian genocide claims at the hands of the Ottoman Empire and itsoccupation of Nagorno-Karabakh, an Armenian enclave within regional ally Azerbaijan.
On Thursday, police briefly detained five trade union representatives whostaged a demonstration on a jetty on Lake Vanto protest the church's restoration. The protesters carried Turkish flags,pictures of Mustafa Kemal Atatürk, modern Turkey's founder, and a banner thatread "The Turkish people are noble. They would never commitgenocide," the Cihan news agency reported.
Protesting their detention in Ankara,another group staged a demonstration in front of the Interior Ministry,chanting slogans against erection of the cross on the church. "You are allArmenians, we are all Turks and Muslims," they said.
Güncelleme Tarihi: 20 Eylül 2018, 18:16