By Emil Danielyan
The Armenian Apostolic Church said on Tuesday that it will boycott the high-profile inauguration of an ancient Armenian church in Turkey, in protest against the Turkish government’s failure to reinstate it as a place of worship.
The 10th century Church of Holy Cross, located on the Akhtamar island on Lake Van, will again open its doors on Thursday after a $1.5 million restoration commissioned by the government in Ankara. The opening ceremony is due to be attended by Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan and other top Turkish officials as well as hundreds of guests.
The latter will include a government delegation from Armenia headed by Deputy Culture Minister Gagik Gyurjian and the Istanbul-based spiritual leader of Turkey’s 60,000-strong Armenian community, Patriarch Mesrop II.
In a statement, the Echmiadzin-based Mother See of the Armenian Apostolic Church said its supreme leader, Catholicos Garegin II, has also been invited to the event. It said Garegin will boycott it because the Turkish authorities have refused to return the church to the Armenian Patriarchate in Istanbul and plan to turn it into a museum instead.
“This action taken by Turkey’s authorities against the virtuous Christian feelings of the Armenian people can not be regarded as a positive step towards a rapprochement between the Armenian and Turkish peoples,” read the statement. “Especially in the context of the present universal pursuit of a dialogue of religions and cultures and partnership among peoples.”
Mesrop earlier asked the authorities in Ankara to allow the Turkish-Armenian community to mount a cross on top of the Akhtamar church and hold religious ceremonies there. The request was reportedly rejected by the Erdogan government, which makes no secret of its intention to use the church’s renovation for halting growing international recognition of the 1915-1918 mass killings of Armenians in Ottoman Turkey as genocide.
This is the apparent reason why the Armenian government will not be sending a more high-level delegation to Akhtamar. Culture Minister Hasmik Poghosian said on March 15 that she has received an official invitation to attend the ceremony and will likely accept it. But Foreign Minister Vartan Oskanian downplayed the event’s political significance a few days later, saying that it is no substitute for reopening the Turkish-Armenian border and establishing diplomatic relations between the two neighboring states.
Built in 921 A.D. by Armenian King Gagik Artsruni, the Akhtamar church is one of the few remaining monuments of medieval Armenian architecture in what is now eastern Turkey. The Turkish government initiated the church’s renovation in 2005 after being urged by the European Union to consider placing it on UNESCO's World Heritage List.
(Photolur photo: Garegin II.)