VAN, Turkey -- For the first time in nearly a century, Armenians have been allowed to conduct a religious service in a recently renovated island church in eastern Turkey, in an event that Ankara intended as a show of tolerance toward its Christian minority.
But the Sunday Mass was boycotted by many Armenians because of the failure by Turkey to place a cross atop the building.
The September 19 Armenian Orthodox service on the Lake Van island of Akhtamar, conducted by Archbishop Aram Ateshian, the spiritual leader of Turkey's Armenian community, lasted for 2 1/2 hours and attracted many visitors, including representatives of the foreign diplomatic corps in Turkey and the mayor of the city of Van.
Hundreds of Armenian pilgrims also attended.
Those who came to Akhtamar but could not attend the main ceremonies due to limited space inside the Cathedral of Surb Khach, or Holy Cross, were reportedly allowed to go inside for a minute or so to get a glimpse of the historic service.
The liturgy came after a $1.5-million renovation of the 10th-century Armenian church, completed by the Turkish government in 2007. But it was reopened as a museum, not a church, with no cross placed on its dome. Still, Ankara allowed Armenians to have a once-a-year liturgy there.
The Armenian Apostolic Church in Etchmiadzin initially agreed to send their delegates to the Akhtamar service following a pledge by the Turkish side that a cross would be installed by the time of the Mass. But the Armenian clergy later withdrew its participation, citing the failure of the Turkish authorities to honor their promise. Turkish officials said the 200-kilogram cross was too heavy for the church's roof and would be placed at the door of the church instead.
Armenians responded by canceling their trips to Turkey. Critics said the Mass was merely a campaign to improve Turkey’s image and promote its bid to join the European Union.
In the end, an estimated 1,000 Armenians traveled to Van to attend the liturgy out of an expected 5,000 worshippers.
Among the pilgrims were some from Armenia, the United States, and Europe, but the majority of them came from Istanbul, which has a relatively large community of ethnic Armenians.
The red stone church of Surb Khach is one of the few surviving examples of the ancient Armenian civilization in what is now eastern Turkey.
Van’s large Armenian community was expelled in 1915 during the upheaval that accompanied World War I and the breakup of the Ottoman Empire.
The World War I-era mass killings of Armenians in Ottoman Turkey, which Armenia recognizes as the first genocide of the 20th century, still remains a major stumbling block to reconciliation between the two neighbors. Ankara rejects the term genocide and says large number of both Christian Armenians and Muslim Turks were killed.
Efforts at normalizing relations between the historical foes stalled in April when Armenia froze an internationally backed peace deal signed in October 2009.
The Akhtamar event was widely viewed as an opportunity to build more cultural bridges between Turks and Armenians.
One elderly pilgrim at the September 19 Mass said Catholicos Karekin II, the head of the Armenian Apostolic Church, should have come to Turkey and shown that “the local Armenians are also his flock.”
“The cross will be set up one day. This is not that important,” he said. “This church has not had a cross for 100 years. Did people want this church to be restored or destroyed?”
In Armenia, hundreds attended an alternative religious service held at the Armenian Genocide Memorial on a hill overlooking the capital, Yerevan. They denounced the service on Lake Van as a publicity stunt.