Around 2,000 Armenians reportedly attended on Sunday a mass held in a medieval Armenian cathedral in southeastern Turkey for the third time since its government-funded renovation in 2007.
AFP reported that the pilgrims, most of them Turkish nationals of Armenian descent, were ferried to the tiny Akhtamar island on Lake Van, the site of the 10th century church of Surp Khach (Holy Cross)
Archbishop Aram Atessian, the acting spiritual leader of Turkey’s small Armenian community, presided over the mass. Only a few dozen faithful were able to watch the service inside the church, the rest following proceedings from outside, AFP said, citing the Anatolia news agency.
The congregation prayed for peace in the world at a time when Turkey's neighbor Syria, which also has a large community of Armenians, is being torn apart by a conflict which has left thousands of people dead since it erupted in March 2011.
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.
Turkish authorities repaired the church between 2005 and 2007, which then opened as a museum. Mass was celebrated there for the first time in 95 years in 2010. According to the Turkish tourism ministry, the church attracted nearly 30,000 visitors in 2010, and similar number in 2011.
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.