By Ben Holland (Associated Press Writer) in Kayseri, Turkey
(AP) - Some 150 Armenian-Americans joined their brethren in Turkey Friday for a religious service to mark the 1,700th anniversary of the founding of the Armenian church - in a city where it is scarcely practiced.
Less than a dozen Armenians now live in the central Turkish city of Kayseri, where St. Gregory the Illuminator - founder of the Armenian church - was baptized in the church that still bears his name. It now hosts just two or three services a year.
Scruffy children now play outside its crumbling walls while a half-finished concrete tower block looms above. Inside, purple-robed priests wafted incense above the chanting of some 300 worshippers celebrating the anniversary of their faith. For many of the Armenian-Americans the trip to Turkey was a personal voyage of discovery - a chance to see the towns and villages their parents or grandparents were forced to flee as violence shook the Ottoman Empire early last century.
Armenians say 1.5 million of their people died in mass killings during World War I that amounted to genocide. Turkey strongly denies the label, arguing that the numbers are inflated and the Armenians were killed during civil unrest. For generations, this dispute has poisoned Turkey's relations with neighboring Armenia - and with countries, like France and the United States, where Armenian diaspora communities have pushed for official recognition of what they say was genocide.
"Those events broke a friendship that had stretched back for centuries," said Khajak Barsamian, the head of the Armenian church in New York City, who presided over the service alongside Turkey's Armenian Patriarch Mesrob II. "But anything that's broken can be repaired."
There were signs of quiet repair work Friday.
"There's an affinity between Armenians and Turks, it's more than geographical," said Noubor E. Kazarian, a stockbroker from New York City. Like many others, Kazarian said he had come "to see the Turkey where my father and mother grew up."
There was sadness, but few signs of bitterness, for those Armenians who never grew up. "It's just a historical problem but it's got to be resolved...this is where we come from," said Mitchell Kenoian, a businessman based in Paramus, New Jersey.
A two-week tour of central and eastern Turkey, organized by the Turkish-Armenian Business Council and the Armenian church in the United States, will take the group through some of the cradles of Armenian culture. Almost every town and village along the way has a special significance for someone in the group.
That makes it very hard to plan an itinerary, said George Kassis, director of communications for the Armenian church in New York City. "It's very hard to go within 10 miles of your father's village and not go there," he said.
Kebor Toroyan, an academic from New Canaan, Connecticut and the group's chair, is looking forward to visiting the southern city of Adana - his grandfather's old home. "When I was growing up in the United States, my grandfather said to me, over and over, 'You should see the size of the peaches in Adana'," he said with a smile.
Armenians still living in Turkey - there are some 65,000, though most live in Istanbul and few remain in the former heartland of the east - welcomed their trans-Atlantic brethren. "Let them come and see - it's the birthplace of Armenian culture," said Bogos Yilan, a furrier from Istanbul who traveled some 800 kilometers (500 miles) east to Kayseri for Friday's service.
"This year, 150 came. Next year, 2,000 will come," he said happily.