Akhtamar Mass: Liturgy, but no peace without a cross at landmark religious service in Turkey

For the first time in nearly a century Armenian Christians have had a religious service in a 10th-century church on the Lake Van island of Akhtamar, in what now is eastern Turkey.

The September 19 Liturgy at the Surb Khach (Holy Cross) Church was conducted by Archbishop Aram Ateshian, the Armenian Patriarchal Vicar of Constantinople. Service went on, despite the absence of a cross on the dome of the church — a holy indicator for all Armenian churches.

Turkish officials say they intend to install one, but haven’t managed yet. Besides, the church is now (since a 2007 renovation) officially a museum where on Friday, according to a CNN report, one Catholic priest was politely stopped from chanting, saying that praying was not allowed in museums.

The Etchmiadzin See of the Armenian Apostolic Church refused to send its delegates to the event after learning that Turkish authorities had failed to honor their pledge to install the Christian symbol atop the building by the time of the liturgy. This also prompted many Armenian Christians in Armenia and abroad to cancel their booked trips to Turkey en masse.

Still, the Sunday event stood out by its significance to many who were present.

For the first time since the genocide of these areas’ original Armenian population by Ottoman Turks coincidental to World War I, Van Turkish authorities allowed a one-off liturgy and the red-stone Armenian church was again shrouded in the sounds of a liturgy and the scent of incense.

Among an estimated 6,700 visitors to the island, about a thousand were Armenians who had arrived from different corners of the world – Europe, the United States, Armenia, but mostly from Istanbul, which still has a relatively large community of ethnic Armenians.

The pilgrims lit candles in the church yard, kissed the Surb Khach (Holy Cross) walls and whispered prayers.

Turkish authorities have tried to show a positive change in their policy towards religious and ethnic minorities in a bid to improve the country’s international image and better its chances to join the European Union.

The Akhtamar event has been widely viewed as one in a series of similar public shows of a changing Turkey.

Another major impact that the church service in Akhtamar would have is to build more cultural bridges between Turks and Armenians in Turkey and Armenia, with which Ankara still has no diplomatic ties.

The internationally backed rapprochement between Turkey and Armenia stalled in April after an apparent move by Turkey to set preconditions before it ratified in parliament two signed protocols on normalization.

But the widely advertised event fell short of expectations as it proceeded against the backdrop of a major row over the cross.

After completing a $1.5 million project on the restoration of the Armenian church at Akhtamar the Turkish government gave it the status of a museum, implying that religious services, prayers and lighting candles would be inappropriate inside. Later, in what Ankara presented as a gesture of goodwill, Turkey allowed an Armenian religious service once a year – something that still left many Armenians dissatisfied.

Authorities in Turkey further said the original design of the church did not allow for the installation of a heavy cross atop the building and said installing it before the Sunday service would mean risking damage to the dome. They said, though, the cross might be set up afterwards.

“They shouldn’t be thinking that they are doing a big favor. Let them say what they have done to the rest of our sacred places – they’ve turned them into stables and cattle-sheds. And today they are allowing this liturgy conducted in a church without a cross. This is just another bait of Turkish diplomacy,” said Murad Keyan, a German-Armenian with roots in Kharberd, now in Turkey, who had arrived in Van days before the event at Akhtamar.

Similar views were expressed also by participants of an alternative church mass organized by protesters at Tsitsernakaberd, a hilltop complex in Yerevan perpetuating the memory of 1.5 million Armenians killed in Genocide. Hundreds of Armenians attended the event in which the Akhtamar service was called another publicity stunt attempted by Turkey.

Meanwhile, scores of international media, as well as 25 Armenian and about 150 Turkish reporters, were providing an extensive coverage to the events at Akhtamar. But only a limited number of journalists were actually allowed to go inside the church during the time of the service proper.

Still, there was plenty to report about the goings-on outside the church walls.

Among the Armenians who had arrived to attend the ceremonies were also those living in Turkey who had converted to Islam. They said they’d come to see their countrymen.

“During the massacres my grandfather was adopted and raised by Kurds. My grandfather would say to us that we are Armenians by our roots. Today, I’ve come here just to see Armenians,” says Farsanda, a 70-year-old living in Baghesh. “I married a Kurd, and so did my sister. And recently I found my cousins now living in Armenia.”

Islamized Armenians from Mush -- Tekim (Hayk), Daniel, Mashala, Hayrentin (Serob) were distributing grapes to the guests in one part of the island.

“Hayk and Serob are our Armenian names. We have brought the grapes from the village of Monkonk, which is two kilometers from Mush, which was an old Armenian village where vineyards had originally been planted by Armenians. Help yourselves,” says Tekim.

The Moslem Armenian says that several years ago in the village of Sasnashen in Armenia’s Talin region he found his relatives and now visits them once a year.

Candles were on sale in the church yard. Armenians who were visiting the island were picking up rocks from around the place, taking a handful of earth and filling it into their bags, taking some water from Lake Van and filling it in bottles – to take to their distant homes overseas as a reminder of their forefathers’ land.

An information panel on the island says the Surb Khach Church was built by King Gagik I. But it does not mention that he was an Armenian king and that the church itself was built by a priest called Manuel in 915-921 AD at the behest of Vaspurakan King Gagik I.

The booklets telling about Van also leave out such information, presenting it as a city built by Kurds.

“It’s a tragedy. Who doesn’t know that this is an Armenian church, built by Armenians? Authorities [in Turkey] should remove the status of a museum from the church and its use by Armenians must be allowed all the time. If not, then this is just another Turkish political gimmick,” said Nuran Akayan from Istanbul, who has his ancestral roots in Sebastia.