Turkey Allows Mass at Ancient Armenian Church But Sows Anger

Turkish Armenians light candles near the Holy Cross church on Akhtamar Island in Van, eastern Turkey, on Saturday. (Mustafa Ozer, AFP, Getty Images)
By Justin Vela (aol.com) VAN, Turkey (Sept. 17)
-- For the first time in nearly a century, Turkey will allow a Mass at a 10th-century Armenian Orthodox cathedral in eastern Turkey, but the state's failure to restore a cross atop the building has soured the occasion for many Armenians.
Some 5,000 members of the Armenian diaspora are expected to descend upon tiny Akdamar Island on Lake Van for Sunday's Mass. The Turkish government has portrayed the event as a gesture of religious tolerance and rapprochement with Armenia, which is at odds with Turkey over the classification of massacres carried out by Ottoman forces in the late 19th and early 20th centuries.
Turkey Allows Mass at Ancient Armenian Church after 95-years
Mustafa Ozer, AFP / Getty Images
Turkish Armenians light candles near the Holy Cross church on Akhtamar Island in Van, eastern Turkey, on Saturday.The first liturgy in 95 years is scheduled to be offered in the church on Sunday.

The Armenians claim Turks killed up to 1.5 million Armenians between 1915 and 1917 in a deliberate attempt to eradicate them as an ethnic minority. Countries including France, Russia and Greece have recognized the genocide, while the U.S. and Britain have not, in line with Turkey's position that the deaths were part of the events of World War I. Ankara acknowledges that large numbers of Armenians died but says the deaths did not constitute genocide. It accuses the Armenian population of working with foreign powers to try to bring down the Ottoman Empire.

Against that background, Sunday's Mass has great historical significance. "This church is very important for Armenians, not only in Turkey but across the world," Archbishop Aram Ateshian, the spiritual leader of Turkey's surviving Armenian community, told Reuters last month. "For decades, we could not say Mass or have a religious service because it was forbidden by the government."

Ateshian considers the Mass to be an important gesture from the Turkish government, yet many other Armenians have condemned the event and called for a boycott. Some see the Mass as an attempt by Turkey to appear to be advancing the rights of its minorities in the eyes of the international community while shunning real engagement with Armenia.

"We were the first to launch this initiative, order renovation and issue permission for annual liturgies. It shows Turks' tolerance," said Turkish Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan, speaking about the Mass.

Exacerbating the debate is the cross that once crowned the conical dome of the historic Cathedral of the Holy Cross. Turkish authorities initially said a cross would be installed in time for the service, but now have reneged on the promise, to the outrage of Armenians.

The cross is thought to have been knocked off the top of the cathedral in 1915, when it was looted and the surrounding monastic buildings burned. In 2007, the cathedral was reopened as a state-owned museum after undergoing an expensive renovation. It is one of the few remaining examples of ancient Armenian architecture, and the Turkish government wanted to preserve it as part of the country's past.

But after the renovation, a cross was not put up, and several weeks ago Ateshian was informed that its installation would be postponed because of sensitivities surrounding last weekend's referendum on constitutional amendments proposed by the ruling Justice and Development Party (AKP).

Later, the Armenian cleric said, he was told the cross would not go up until sometime after the Mass, and local authorities said that it weighed too much. "There is no date [for when the cross will be put up]. One or two months, I don't know," Ateshian said in an interview with AOL News in Istanbul.

Many Armenians, bound for Van with the expectation of seeing a cross on top of the church, are offended by the delay. The Armenian Orthodox Church in Yerevan, Armenia, has decided against sending two representatives that had planned to be at the Mass.

Armenian journalist Karine Ter-Sahakian had planned to be at the Mass with other Armenian intellectuals, but canceled her trip when she heard the news.

"I think that a religious ceremony in a non-consecrated church goes contrary to Christian values," she said. "Moreover, Turkish authorities did not install a cross on the dome of the church. Due to these reasons, participation in the liturgy becomes a profanation."

Despite the anger from neighboring Armenia, Ateshian has said he will go ahead with the service. "Here is Turkey," he said. "It is my decision." He said he hoped that after this first service, which will be held with the cross placed on a wooden stand either inside or outside of the church -- there will be additional services during the year.

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"We will discuss two or three times a year to give Armenian tourists the chance to pray there," he said, an indication of the patience necessary in negotiating the Turkish government's stance toward minority rights.

Ateshian said he had hope with the AKP's stance, noting that the governing party shares common ground with minorities despite tough nationalist opposition.

"The AKP is trying to do their best. They are doing something," he said. "As they are a little bit of a religious party, they are close to minorities and trying to do their best to give rights to us, but they have opposition."

Last modified onSaturday, 06 May 2017 10:07