The church of Surp Khach (Holy Cross) will see its first mass in nearly a century on September 19, three years after being reopened following a $1.5 million renovation funded by the Turkish government. The latter has allowed Turkey’s surviving Armenian Christian community to hold religious services there once a year.
Ankara has promoted the decision as proof of its commitment to tolerance and a gesture of goodwill towards Armenians. Still, it has resisted calls to return the church, perched on the legendary Akhtamar island in Lake Vane, to the community currently led by Archbishop Aram Ateshian.
Garegin’s chief spokesman, Father Vahram Melikian, described the one-day reopening as a positive but insufficient step. “The Mother See of Saint Echmiadzin hopes that the decision will be revised and the church will be returned to the Armenian community that will use in full,” he told RFE/RL’s Armenian service.
Melikian said Ateshian, who will preside over the mass, has asked the supreme leader of the Armenian Apostolic Church to send representatives to the high-profile ceremony expected to draw Turkish state officials. Garegin has accepted the request and will be represented at the event by a bishop and another senior cleric from his headquarters, added Melikian.
It is not clear whether Armenian government officials will also attend it. The Armenian ministries of foreign affairs and culture said Monday that they have received no formal invitations from the Turkish side yet.
Garegin’s decision could cause controversy in Armenia and its worldwide Diaspora where many regard the one-off mass as a Turkish propaganda ploy. The matter was discussed on Monday by a sucommission of President Serzh Sarkisian’s advisory Public Council.
Ruben Safrastian, a Turkey scholar chairing the subcommission, said Ankara wants to exploit the mass for political aims. “Having scuttled the process of normalizing Turkish-Armenian relations, Turkey is now trying to show the world that it is trying to normalize those relations,” he said. “In all likelihood, it has prepared that event for this purpose.”
The discussion was initiated by the Van-Vapurakan non-governmental organization uniting descedenants of Armenians who lived in the Van region and survived the 1915 genocide. Its chairman, Romik Hovnanian, accused the Turks of seeking to mislead the world and “drive a wedge” between Armenia and the Armenian Diaspora.
Built between 915 and 921 A.D., the Akhtamar church is one of the few surviving examples of the ancient Armenian civilization in what is now eastern Turkey. Hundreds of Armenian churches built there since the early Middle Ages were destroyed, ransacked or turned into mosques during and after 1915 the mass killings and deporations.