09/20/2010, 00.00
TURKEY

After 95 years, Mass is celebrated in the Holy Cross Armenian Church, in Lake Van

by Geries Othman
Archbishop Aram Atesyan has described the event as “a miracle”. The church is located in lands where the Armenian genocide took place. In the past, its icons were used for target practice and darkened by the smoke of barbecues. The building is still missing its iron cross from the top of its dome. Diaspora Armenians complain about it; Armenians living in Turkey are happy and joyful for the event.

Ankara (AsiaNews) – After 95 years, the Eucharist was celebrated once again in the Holy Cross Armenian Church on Akdamar Island in Lake Van, in eastern Turkey near the border with Armenia. Archbishop Aram Atesyan, vicar of the Armenian patriarch of Turkey, described the event, which occurred yesterday, as “a miracle”. However, in the Armenian Diaspora, many voices were critical.

“It is miracle to be able to celebrate the Eucharist here today,” the bishop said in his sermon. Speaking in Armenian, then Turkish, he thanked Turkish authorities who restored the building and authorised the celebration. “This will be a golden page in history,” he said at the end of the service.

Built more than a thousand years ago, Holy Cross Armenian Church is a beautiful specimen of Armenian architecture, but for Armenians and the international community it symbolises the Armenian “genocide”, a term rejected by Turkey.

In 2005, Turkish Armenian journalist Hrant Dink, who was murdered in January 2007, called for its reopening so as “to restore our spent souls”.

For decades after it was abandoned, the ancient frescos were used for target practice and the smoke of barbecues and picnics blackened the walls of the sacred building. In 2007, after two years of restoration work, the church was reopened to the public as a museum.

About 5,000 people took part in yesterday’s Eucharistic celebration. About 50 special guests attended the service inside the church. Another 1,500 Armenians, 700 from Istanbul, 200 from Armenia, and the rest from the United States and Europe, as well as many Turks took part in the liturgy outside, watching it on two large screens places on the grounds of the island’s park.

Turkish officials were also present, including the mayors of Van and Gevas, the head of the Department of Museums and Antiquities, the deputy minister of Tourism and the Van chief of police.

Armenian religious authorities from other nations were not present. Only the representative of the Patriarchate of Constantinople attended the service. The other three patriarchate of the Armenian Apostolic Church refused to come, despite the personal invitation of the Turkish prime minister. They motivated their decision by the failure of Turkish authorities to place the church cross on its dome.

Holy Cross (Surb Khach) Armenian Church was discussed in today’s Turkish press, with much said about the decision not on put up the cross “for technical reasons”. In fact, not everyone is convinced by that explanation.

“In a country where construction firms are able to build 270 meter tall skyscrapers, how is the Governor of Van not embarrassed by claiming that he cannot lift and place a 100 kg iron cross at some 10-15 meters? The crisis was overcome by the innovative entrepreneurs of Van, and the cross was erected. Unfortunately, not atop the dome, where it would have been acceptable to the Armenian community,” Ayse Gyur wrote on Taraf, but in the church garden.

“Armenia and Turkey have politicised the issue of erecting the cross on the Surb Khach Church,” said Mildanoglu Zakaria, an architect and restoration expert who took part in the restructuring of the historic church on Akdamar Island.

For the architect, the authorisation of a religious service is a huge breakthrough, and the debate about the issue of the cross should not detract from the significance of the event.

“I have always said that the cross should not be used in politics. The cross should have been erected on the dome after the reconstruction, but this issue has been so politicised by both sides, it has resulted in disputes,” which might hinder small but crucial steps towards dialogue and reconciliation between the two peoples.

In fact, the controversy is not over. For Diaspora Armenians, the Surb Khach Church on Akdamar Island cannot be considered fully restored until a cross is erected on the dome, various Armenian public figures said. To make their point, a group of Armenians also raised wooden crosses during the liturgy in protest.

However, for Armenians coming from Istanbul and the many who could not make the journey from Ankara, this was a proud moment. “After 95 years of heavy silence, the festive sound of bells could be heard on the island again. It matters little,” some said with teary eyes, “that it was just a recording because Turkish authorities would not allow bells and the cross on the church. What counts is that yesterday we were able to celebrate the Eucharist in this place so dear and holy. This is a sign of great hope. It is like coming out of the catacombs to show our faith without shame or fear.”

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