By Emil Danielyan
Armenia on Thursday welcomed the inauguration of a newly renovated ancient Armenian church in eastern Turkey, but said that alone will not help to improve Turkish-Armenian relations.
The Foreign Ministry in Yerevan pointed to the Turkish authorities’ apparent refusal to reinstate the 10th century Church of the Saint Cross as a place of worship and accused them of using the high-profile event to prevent U.S. recognition of the Armenian genocide.
The ceremony marking the $1.5 million restoration of the church, located on the island of Akhtamar on the vast Lake Van, took place earlier in the day in the presence of senior Turkish officials, leaders of Turkey’s Armenian community and a government delegation from Armenia. The delegation led by Deputy Culture Minister Gagik Gyurjian attended it at the invitation of Turkish Culture Minister Atilla Koc.
Speaking at the ceremony broadcast live by Turkish television, Koc portrayed the restoration as a gesture of goodwill towards the Armenians and proof of his government’s commitment to protecting the cultural heritage of Turkey’s ethnic minorities.
“This is a positive move and holds the potential of a reversal of the policy of negligence and destruction,” Vladimir Karapetian, the Armenian Foreign Ministry spokesman, said in a statement. He urged Ankara to take the “same kind approach” to dozens of other medieval churches that have fallen into disrepair or been vandalized since the 1915 mass killings and deportations of Armenians in Ottoman Turkey.
“Unfortunately, this opening was not transformed to a new opportunity in Armenia-Turkish relations, because the Turkish government has not found it expedient to do so,” the statement said.
“Turkey’s announcements about the opening of this renovated church do not include the word ‘Armenian’ anywhere,” it added. “Names of kings and regions from medieval times are evoked, but no mention is made of its Armenian and Apostolic belonging. This is an evasion of the Turkish government’s responsibility not only to history and memory, but to its own Armenian minority.”
Also causing controversy in Armenia was the sight of a huge Turkish flag and a picture of Mustafa Kemal Ataturk, founder of the Turkish Republic, hanging at the entrance to the Akhtamar church. Yerkir-Media, an Armenian television station that retransmitted the ceremony, aired a live phone-in program afterwards. It featured phone calls by angry viewers that condemned the display of Turkish state symbols on an Armenian religious shrine as blasphemous.
Earlier this week, the head of the Armenian Apostolic Church, Catholicos Garegin II, rejected an official invitation to attend the event because the Turkish government has converted the restored church into a museum and ignored calls by the Turkish-Armenian community to place a cross on the church's dome.
In a speech before about 350 people attending the ceremony, the community’s spiritual leader, Patriarch Mesrop II, urged the government in Ankara to open up the church for worship at least once a year. "If our government approves [the request,] it will contribute to peace between two communities who have not been able to come together for years," Mesrop said.
Koc promised to consider the request. Reuters news agency reported that Turkish officials removed some of the candles placed inside the church by Armenians that arrived on the remote island for the occasion. It said some of them whispered prayers and wept with emotion.
Turkish officials have made no secret of their intention to use the event for countering the decades-long Armenian campaign for international recognition of the 1915-1918 massacres as genocide. The U.S. Congress is to debate a relevant resolution co-sponsored by over a hundred lawmakers soon.
“It is no coincidence that this opening is being held just as the U.S. Congress is considering a resolution on affirming the U.S. record on the Armenian Genocide,” said Karapetian.
Karapetian also criticized Ankara for failing to reopen the Turkish-Armenian for the Armenian officials heading to Akhtamar. The Armenian delegation took 16 hours to reach the site, less than 400 kilometers from Yerevan, via Georgia.
In a related development, the Turkish police detained on Thursday five trade-union representatives who staged a demonstration on a jetty on Lake Van to protest the church's restoration. According to an Associated Press report citing the government-run Anatolia news agency, the protesters carried Turkish flags, pictures of Ataturk, and a banner that read: “The Turkish people are noble. They would never commit genocide.”