News reports citing Turkish television said boat shuttles ferried the pilgrims, most of them from Turkey but some from Armenia and Europe, to the Akhtamar Island on Lake Van, which is home to the church of Surp Khach (Holy Cross). They said a new lakeside pier was built this year to accommodate the faithful.
The Turkish government allowed the first mass in nearly a century there in September 2010 after spending $1.5 million on the renovation and turning the church into a museum.
The AFP news agency reported that Archbishop Aram Ateshian, the interim spiritual leader of Turkey’s Armenian community, chaired the ceremony this year.
The Anatolia news agency quoted Ateshian as saying that only 60 percent of around 3,000 people who arrived on the island were able to enter the church. The others heard the mass outside through loudspeakers.
According to the Turkish Tourism Ministry, nearly 30,000 tourists flocked to the Akhtamar church last year.
The Armenia-based Mother See of the Armenian Apostolic Church boycotted the 2010 ceremony, saying that the Turkish authorities broke their pledge to restore a cross on the Surp Khach dome in time for the mass. The cross was placed there later in 2010.
Ankara has promoted the Surp Khach renovation as proof of its commitment to tolerance and a gesture of goodwill towards Armenians. But it has resisted calls to formally return the shrine to the Armenian Patriarchate in Istanbul.
Built between 915 and 921, 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 recognized by many historians as genocide.