Political move or religious tolerance?: Authorized liturgy at Surb Khach in Turkey draws reproach amid modest welcome

The Mother See of Holy Etchmiadzin has refused to participate in the Divine Liturgy at the Armenian Surb Khach (Holy Cross) Church on Akhtamar Island in Lake Van on September 19, after learning “with regret and disappointment” that the placing of the cross on top of the church dome “is being postponed by the Turkish authorities without cause.”

“The Mother See had been assured that the consecrated cross would be permanently placed on the dome of the church one week prior to the celebration of Divine Liturgy in the Church of the Holy Cross,” the Mother See press office said in a statement.

“Taking into account the breach of the assurances provided regarding the placement of the cross, the Mother See of Holy Etchmiadzin – which was prepared to satisfy the request of the Armenian Patriarchate of Constantinople to send two representatives to participate in the Divine Liturgy – is suspending the participation of her representatives in the celebration of the liturgy at the Church of the Holy Cross at Akhtamar on September 19.”

The Armenian Surb Khach was built during the heyday of the Kingdom of Vaspurakan in the 10th century by architect Manuel, during the reign of King Gagik Artsruni. It was restored by the Turkish authorities and opened in 2007 as a museum. In the spring of 2010, the Turkish government gave Armenians the right to conduct a liturgy in the church once a year.

It was earlier reported that Bishop Markos Hovhannisyan and Archimandrite Komitas Hovnanyan would attend the upcoming liturgy on behalf of Holy Etchmiadzin.

At the end of August, the Catholicosate of the Great House of Cilicia also said it refused to take part in the liturgy. In the statement the Catholicosate underlined its “position against Turkey’s consistent denialist policy and attempts to appear before the international community as a defender of human rights.”

There is an ongoing debate in Armenia about whether or not Armenians should attend the September 19 liturgy on the Lake Van island. The prevailing opinion appears to be against attending the event.

But Artak Shakaryan, a leading specialist in Turkish studies in Armenia, believes that this occasion should be used as a precedent for the restoration of other Armenian churches in the territory of modern-day Turkey and for conducting liturgies in them.

Online publication Lragir writes. “Obviously, the Turks ‘allow’ a liturgy in the Armenian church to show who is in the position of ‘allowing’. Going to Akhtamar with Turkey’s permission means only to recognize its right.”

Genocide Institute-Museum Director Hayk Demoyan says Armenia’s participation should be of a reserved nature.

“Armenia should appear there not at a high level, we should show that we understand that this is just a publicity stunt,” said Demoyan.

Lawmaker from the governing Republican Party of Armenia Artak Zakaryan believes that the resumption of the activities of the church on the island of Akhtamar is another show staged by Turkey for domestic and foreign audiences. According to him, this show is aimed at improving the external and internal images of the Turkish authorities on the eve of the upcoming elections.

In August, eight youth organizations of Armenia made an appeal for refusing to participate in the Surb Khach Church liturgy in Turkey. “According to our data, about 6,000 people have purchased tickets and on that day are going to take part in a show that the Turks organize in our occupied homeland. We demand that [Armenians] should refuse to attend this pro-Turkish event that derides Armenians. Every Armenian who wants to participate in this event should ask himself: where are the descendants and followers of the creators of this beautiful monument?” the organizations said.

Meanwhile, New York-based pianist and composer of Armenian origin Shahan Artsruni said that on September 18, the eve of the liturgy at the Surb Khach Church, he will give a concert in Van. The musician says he is a descendant of King Gagik Artsruni who built the church.