03/28/2007, 00.00
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The Armenian Church of the Holy Cross on lake Van reopened but only as a museum

by Mavi Zambak
Built in the X century it lies in one of the country’s most beautiful areas, the very site of the Armenian genocide occurred. The journalist Hrant Dink, killed a months ago, had asked for the churches restoration and reopening. For years the ancient frescos had been used for target practice; the sacred building blackened by barbecue smoke for picnics. Armenian religious authorities protest. Patriarch Mesrob II refuses to participate in the ceremony.

Ankara (AsiaNews) – Tomorrow March 29 the Turkish government will reopen – as a museum – the ancient Armenian Church of the Holy Cross on Akdamar island in the middle of lake Van, on eastern Turkey’s border with Armenia.   The date had been moved over 4 times.  Tomorrow Turkish authorities will be present at the ceremony, including prime minister Erdogan, but the Armenian spiritual authorities will not be present.  In fact the Ankara authorities have denied the use of the building as a Church and has also refused to place a cross at the summit of the dome, as the original Church once had.

Frescos destroyed and blackened

Lying in a splendid salt water volcanic lake,  this suggestive church is reached by a short 15 minute baost trip.  It is one of the most precious examples of Armenian tenth century art in existence, an architectural creation of rare beauty (view the photo album at following address: http://www.pbase.com/dosseman/akdamar ).

In the past the Turkish journal Milliyet, had denounced the alarming story that the bas relief which decorate the facade of the Holy Cross and depict scenes from the New and Old testament, were being used as target practice.  In order to prove the damage caused they published photos illustrating the extent of the bullets destruction. Moreover, on hearing of a hidden treasure present on the island,  local residents became "hunters" in search of the presumed riches, committing untold acts of vandalism in the process.

As if that was not enough, the island, a popular destination for holiday picnic makers, was literally invaded by barbeques some even installed within the church itself, with the tragic consequence that the frescos on the church interior were blackened beyond recognition.

In 2004 the newspaper Zaman also raised the alarm about the degraded state of Holy Cross Church, despite the fact that it is a tourist location of renowned popularity among visitors from all over the world, above all the Armenian Diaspora.  In fact it is widely known that this area – among the most beautiful landscapes in Turkey – is sadly infamous for having been one of the sites of the Armenian genocide of 1915. Today for many Armenians, wherever they may be, Akdamar remains a place dear to their hearts, so much so that many try to visit it before they die.  The sight of elderly Armenians falling to their knees in prayer as they set foot on the sacred island is not a rare one.  

A year and a half ago, the Turkish authorities decided to restore this artistic patrimony, a plan to preserve the historic identity of the church was laid out and after 15 months of intense work the restoration– which cost over 2 million euros and was carried out by the Turkish architect of note Zakerya Mildanoglu –has finished. 

But not without controversy.

The restauration and the Armenian genocide

Armenian Turkish journalist Hrant Dink – killed in Istanbul on January 19th – wrote an article for the Turkish paper Birgun which was republished by Milliyet the very day of his assassination: “Ten years ago I first appealed to the Van authorities. “Instead of inventing a monster in the lake to attract tourists why don’t you take care of the work of art which lies right under your nose.  What need is there to waste your time on stupidities? Van is a veritable treasure from an Artistic point of view. Why do you not act seriously and sit down to ask yourselves: What if we restore the region? – And even if then Armenians did arrive, let them come to visit the birth place of their forefathers, what harm could they possibly do? “  And I even added: “If you need help we are ready.  Turkey’s Armenians and those of the Diaspora are ready to volunteer their services, we are at your orders, let this be known! Come let us restore not only the Church but also our disenchanted souls”. Finally after a long wait restoration on Akdamar are completed  (…) we are deeply indebted to Cahit Zeydanli for his meticulous work, he consulted experts from Armenia and also with architect  Zakarya Mildanoglu, and Armenian from Turkey. They did their best and they have created something splendid.  The did great things, but alas then politicians and bureaucrats became involved and the inauguration could not take place.  Once the opening was put of from November 4th 2006 for reasons of inclement weather to April the 24th, as explained by Culture Minister Atilla Koc. Reactions were not short in coming.  The Armenian Patriarch  Mutafyan made known that in the case the inauguration actually happened on April 24th no Armenian should attend.  Last week the question even arose in Parliament.  CHP (Peoples Republican Party) deputy Erdal Karademir asked if the date of April 24th, the anniversary of the Armenian genocide, was a reflection of the politics of AKP (Justice and Development Party). For its’ part the nationalist press presented the event as “the inauguration of the Van vendetta”.  They succeeded in transforming something positive into an error, a farce, a disaster.  The government still has not taken up a clear position regarding the Armenian question.  It is not concerned with resolving the issue, but in scoring points in a political battle, in basis of their opponents moves. They lack all credibility.  The invite Armenian historians to the discussion table but then show no scruples in putting people on trial who have a different view point to the official line on the question.  The restore the Armenian Church to attract tourists to the western Anatolia region, at the same time showing no sahme in scoring political points from it”.  

After hypothesising over April 11th, now it has been decioded: tomorrow there will be the opening ceremony with the presence of prime minister  Recep Tayyip Erdogan, Minister for Culture and Tourism Attila Koc, the Minister for Armenian Culture Hasmik Poghosyan has also been invited. But the problems persist.  

It is well known that the Border between Turkey and Armenia is closed, thus after various attempts to have a conduit opened, or a special airfield made available for the special occasion, so the Armenian authorities could make their way to Van directly from the Armenian capital,  following Turkey’s repeated no, the group of Architects, historians and journalists today set out on an arduous 15 hour journey overland through Georgia, when Van lies a few hundred miles from Erivan.

A museum without a cross or religious ceremonies

The Armenian Patriarch Karekin Katolikos II has joined Turkish Armenian Patriarch Mesrob II in refusing to attend.  Why?  This historic Church has been transformed into a museum, a request for a cross to be put in place at the summit of the dome has been refused, there will be no bells and the opening ceremony will be equal to that of any secular museum.  

“Seeing as it is not considered a Church, seeing as no religious celebration will mark this reopening, my presence there is really insignificant”, affirmed Patriarch Mesrob II, adding: “I pleaded with the President and Prime Minister to see that a cross be placed on the dome, I invited them to establish an annual Armenian festival in the area, but I have yet to receive an answer.  Therefore my presence there on March 29th really has little sense”.

And the delicate relationship between the Patriarch and the Turkish authorities do not end here.   

Days ago Mesrob II travelled under heavy police escort following death threats to Iskenderun, in ancient Alessandretta, a maritime city on Turkey’s Mediterranean coast, to celebrate the 225 anniversary of the local Armenian Church.  Well, there in that very city which is also home to the Catholic Vicariate to Anatolia, the mayor decided to erect a monument to the Turks killed by French and Armenians during the French occupation of  1918-38.

The Patriarch, could only comment on this gesture as a further provocation by nationalists to divide the population  : “Instead of building a bridge of dialogue between peoples, in this way they heighten tensions, this can only be the work of nationalists”, he sadly commented to journalists.

Even regarding Hrant Dink’s assassination, nothing clear has so far emerged: “If we still cannot find the true perpetrators of this crime, it means that they are well protected and from on high”, is the Patriarchs embittered response.   


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