The 10th century 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.
Responding to a request from Ateshian, the supreme head of the Armenian Church, Catholicos Garegin II, decided last month to send two high-ranking representatives to the event. His spokesman, Father Vahram Melikian, described the one-day reopening of the shrine as a positive but insufficient step.
In a statement issued on Saturday, Garegin’s office said Turkish authorities had assured the Mother See, located in the Armenian town of Echmiadzin, that they will allow the Armenian Patriarchate in Istanbul to place a cross on the temple one week before the ceremony. It said they have broken that pledge with “unfounded justifications.” An Echmiadzin-based bishop and another high-level cleric will therefore not be attending the Akhtamar mass, added the statement.
Garegin’s initial decision to send them to the high-profile event caused controversy in Armenia. Many political groups there regard the event as a Turkish publicity stunt designed to mislead the international community. President Serzh Sarkisian’s Republican Party spoke out against any Armenian participation in the “imitational show” on August 10.
Turkey’s Culture and Tourism Minister Ertugrul Gunay insisted on Sunday that his government initiated the ceremony in good faith. “The Turkish-Armenian Patriarchate introduced the idea of holding a mass in the church once a year and we accepted it. This brings us one step closer [to rapprochement with the Armenians] and will be followed by others,” he told “Hurriyet Daily News.”
“I grew up with Armenians, my best friend is Armenian. We never knew enmity … Whether Greek, Turkish or Armenian, we are all children of these lands,” Gunay said, accusing “nationalists” in both Armenia and Turkey of exploiting the mass for political purposes.
The minister did not comment on the Turkish government’s apparent reluctance to restore the church cross.
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 slaughter of more than one million Armenians in the Ottoman Empire.