By Gayane Danielian
A senior official defended on Monday the Armenian government’s decision to send a delegation to last week’s inauguration in eastern Turkey of an ancient Armenian church renovated by the Turkish state.
The delegation headed by Deputy Culture Minister Gagik Gyurjian attended the opening of the Holy Cross Church on the island of Akhtamar on Lake Van despite serious misgivings voiced by official Yerevan. The Armenian Foreign Ministry dismissed the high-profile event as a public relations stunt aimed at thwarting international recognition of the Armenian genocide. It also slammed Ankara for turning the 10th century monument into a museum, instead of restoring it a place of worship.
Government critics found this position contradictory. Adding to the controversy was the placement of a huge Turkish flag and a picture of Mustafa Kemal Ataturk, founder of the Turkish Republic, on the church’s façade.
Gyurjian insisted, however, that the Armenian participation in such events is essential for both easing Turkish-Armenian tensions and saving the few remaining Armenian monuments in Turkey from destruction. “We need a dialogue and mutual trust,” he told a news conference. “Today we don’t trust each other.
“That is why when our friend Iran hangs its flag on an Armenian church, we don’t complain because there is trust. But when the same thing is done in Turkey in accordance with their law, we resent.”
“That is the law of that country,” Gyurjian said of the use of Turkish state symbols at the Akhtamar church. “It’s an accepted practice there. Once the ceremony was over they removed the flags and pictures.”
The Turkish government initiated the unprecedented renovation, estimated to have cost up to $1.9 million, in 2005 after being urged by the European Union to consider placing the church on UNESCO's World Heritage List. It has so far ignored calls by leaders of Turkey’s Armenian community to allow them to place a cross on the church’s dome and occasionally hold religious services there. The top leadership of the Armenian Apostolic Church boycotted the ceremony for that reason.
The Turkish government has portrayed the restoration as a gesture of goodwill towards the Armenians and proof of its commitment to protecting the cultural heritage of Turkey’s ethnic minorities. It also reportedly hopes to use the event for scuttling the passage of a U.S. congressional resolution describing as genocide the 1915 mass killings and deportations of Armenians in the Ottoman Empire.
In Gyurjian’s words, Armenia should welcome such developments even if they are used by the Turks for political aims. “In order for us to save our cultural heritage in that country, I believe that we must be involved in renovation efforts, regardless of their motives,” he said. “So let them spend millions on restoring monuments, let them take such PR actions.”