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September 19, 2010

Armenians Celebrate Controversial First Liturgy at Surp Haç After 95 Years

Umit Bektas
September 19, 2010

The first Armenian Orthodox ceremony in nearly a century at a church in eastern Turkey was overshadowed on Sunday by a partial Armenian boycott because of the Turkish authorities' refusal to place a cross on the roof of the building.

Nearly a thousand Armenian Orthodox worshippers out of the expected 5,000 people attended the service at the Church of the Holy Cross, which the government has hailed as a sign of growing religious tolerance in the predominantly Muslim country, which is a European Union candidate.

The church, which has been closed for services since the 1915 mass killings of Armenians at the hands of Ottoman troops, has become a symbol of Turkey's troubled past with its Armenian minority and a painful process of reconciliation.

Turkey closed its border with Armenia in 1993 in solidarity with Muslim ally Azerbaijan over its war with Armenia, but in recent years the two nations have sought to normalize relations.

Last October there were a series of accords, but the process fell through after both sides accused the other of trying to rewrite the agreements and setting additional conditions.

Turkish authorities said a 200-kilogram cross made for the 1,000-year old church was too heavy for the roof, sparking outrage among some Armenians.

Earlier this year Turkey agreed to open the site, which sits on the island of Akdamar in Van Lake, for services once a year.

"I am so happy to be here. I want to thank the government for letting us be here at this historic moment," one elderly woman, who identified herself as part of the Armenian community in Turkey told Turkish television.

The church was opened officially as a museum in 2007 following a $1.5 million restoration by the government.

Many people canceled plans to make the 20-hour bus trip from Armenia, through Georgia, after news that the cross would be placed at the door of the church.

Armenia, backed by many historians and world parliaments, says some 1.5 million Armenians died during the upheavals that accompanied World War I and labels the events as genocide.

Ankara rejects the term genocide and says large numbers of both Christian Armenians and Muslim Turks were killed.

In Armenia, hundreds attended an alternative religious service held at the Armenian Genocide Memorial on a hill overlooking the capital, Yerevan. They denounced the service on Lake Van as a publicity stunt.

The Armenian Church in Yerevan had planned to send two bishops to the Lake Van service but reversed the decision in protest at the failure to mount a cross on the church.

September 19, 2010
Hurriyet Daily News

Sorrow marked the historic ceremony at Surp Haç [Holy Cross] Church in Van, as the cross that was set to be placed atop the dome of the church before the service had not yet been erected.

As the dome remained without a cross, the bell tower also remained without a bell. Bell chimes were broadcast through a sound system around Akdamar Island where the church stands.

Following a decision to not send spirituals to the service if the cross was not erected, the Armenian Apostolic Central Church of Armenia wanted to erect a cross weighing 100 kilograms late Friday with the help of four experts from Armenia, leading local officials to intervene in the situation.

According to local officials the Central Church did not have the appropriate permission from the Van Chamber of Commerce and Industry to erect the cross. While the Central Church considers the Turkish Patriarchate responsible for the erection of the cross, the exclusion of the Armenian experts from participating increased tensions.

The Turkish Armenian Patriarchate blessed the church Saturday evening according to the Armenian Apostolic Church, under the auspices of the Van Governor’s Office. The blessing ceremony was held quietly, with neither local nor foreign press informed.

A meters-long sacred table made by Turkish Armenians from Istanbul bearing a depiction of the Virgin Mary was placed as the altar. The sacred table was to be removed from the church after the ceremony and placed in the Van Museum, to be returned to the church for the next ceremony.

The first service to be held in the Church after 95 years started Sunday around 11:00 a.m. under the blessing of Archbishop Aram Ateşyan. Around 3,500 people came to the island for the service, according to official data. The atmosphere was quiet despite security measures.

At the opening of the church in 2007 after its restoration, a huge Turkish flag was hung on the front of the church. This time, however, the flag was nowhere to be seen.

At the 2007 opening, then Minister of Culture Atila Koç was present. However no high-level officials attended the 2010 historic service. The Deputy Gov. of Van, Atay Uslu, Mayor of Van’s Gevaş district Nazmi Sezer, and provincial head of Van Museums and Cultural assets Osman Fırat Süslü were present at Sunday’s ceremony and together they hosted the U.S. Consul to Adana Daria Darnell, Germany’s Ambassador to Ankara Eckart Cuntz, Netherlands ambassador to Ankara and diplomats from Sweden and France. Murat Akyüz, head of the German Armenians Chamber of Commerce, also attended the ceremony.

No crane for cross

The Istanbul choral group Feriköy Surp Vartananzs Armenian Acappella Chorus sang at the ceremony as visitors were transported to the island early Sunday morning. Both domestic and foreign media paid intense attention to the service with more than 200 reporters following the event.

As the church was not sufficiently large, only high-level participants were allowed inside while others watched the ceremony on screens outside.

“The cross was too heavy and we could not bring a crane here,” Sezer told the Hürriyet Daily News & Economic Review before the ceremony.

“It is diffcult to bring the cross up without a scaffold. It was obvious that the work to place the cross on the dome would not be finished before the service,” he said.

Sezer said the base was not appropriate for the cross the Patriarchate brought as it was made to support the original cross.

Regarding questions as to why the issue of the cross had still not been solved since 2007, Sezer said Armenia needed to contribute more to dialogue with Turkey. “Armenia does not respond to Turkey’s positive steps,” Sezer said, adding that if Armenia had accepted Turkey’s conditions and took positive steps for dialogue, the cross would possibly already have been erected.

From Diaspora and Armenia

Despite the pressure of tours to Van for the ceremony being canceled, some groups came from Armenia, the U.S. and Beirut. Verjin Mermerciyan, who came from California, said it was an emotional day. Mermerciyan said no one in the local Armenian diaspora wanted to miss the historic occasion, but there were still perhaps more pressing concerns facing Turkey and Armenia and Armenian Turks in particular. “The reality of genocide cannot be rejected, but dialogue is what is needed now,” she said.

A group calling themselves “Muslim Armenians” also attended the event. “We could not live in our true identities for generations. Although my grandfathers turned to Islam to save their lives during the painful events of their times, they secretly kept their identities as Armenians,” said Hacı Mehmet Ali, a spokesperson of the group.

The ceremony was led by Domingo Fringo, who came from France specifically for the event. “Although permission to hold an annual ceremony has been given for the first time in 95 years, it is a great deficiency that the cross has not been erected,” he said.

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