A Turkish-government-sanctioned church service to be held on September 19 in the 10th century Armenian church of the Holy Cross in eastern Turkey is rekindling a debate in Armenia about Ankara’s intentions toward Yerevan.
Situated on an island in the middle of Lake Van, the Holy Cross Church (known as Surb Khach in Armenian; Akdamar Kilise in Turkish) has not hosted services for 95 years, since Ottoman Turkey’s 1915 slaughter of hundreds of thousands of ethnic Armenians in eastern Turkey. In 2007, the church, restored by the Turkish government, reopened as a museum. Under an agreement from the Turkish Ministry for Culture and Tourism, a mass will now be held once a year in the sanctuary.
But many Armenians say that the long-awaited service is shaping up as a huge disappointment.
Their displeasure centers on a single, 200-kilogram cross -- the Armenian government and the Holy See of Etchmiadzin, seat of the Armenian Apostolic Church, want the cross to be fixed atop the church in time for the September 19 liturgy. Myunir Karaoghlu, governor of Van, the Turkish region where the church is located, has claimed meeting that deadline isn’t possible, due to a lack of suitable equipment to place such a “very heavy” cross atop the church.
“I’m confused, I don’t know whether to attend the mass or not; a liturgy without the cross makes no sense to me,” said 37-year-old Yerevan accountant Narine Avetisian. “Have you ever seen a church without a cross? It’s a disgrace.”
Earlier this year, Armenian travel agencies promoted package tours for attending the mass, which was also expected to attract a large number of diaspora Armenians. That all ended after reports surfaced this month about Governor Karoghlu’s alleged statement concerning the cross to the Patriarch of Constantinople, Archbishop Aram Ateshian, who represents the Armenian Apostolic Church in Istanbul.
The Armenian government subsequently rebuked Turkey for its stance, and dismissed the liturgy as an alleged theatrical show staged to make Turkey seem tolerant to the outside world.
The cross controversy may have become part of a larger issue involving Armenia and Turkey: reconciliation attempts between the long-time enemies came to a halt this spring over emotional divisions on a range of issues. [For background see the EurasiaNet.org archive]. Since then, Armenian media outlets have zeroed in on negative news coverage about Turkey; many travel agencies, in turn, have dropped tours to Turkey, a longtime popular summer destination for Armenians. [For details, see the EurasiaNet.org archive].
One Turkish studies expert in Yerevan, though, seconds the government’s opinion of the mass. “[A]ll the facilities to host Armenian pilgrims are being prepared to avoid any problems, and, in this context, the refusal to place the cross on the church, allegedly due to technical reasons, is not serious,” said Yerevan State University Professor Ruben Melkonian. “It appears that a huge country like Turkey cannot raise a cross weighing only 200 kilograms.”
The “heavy cross” statement also prompted the Holy See of Etchmiadzin to reconsider sending representatives to the mass; Etchmiadzin reportedly sent the cross for the church to the Armenian Patriarchate in Constantinople “many years ago.” It claims that it thought the cross would be in place a week before the mass. In a September 5 statement, the Holy See said that it considers the Turkish reason for the delay to be “without cause.”
The Armenian Patriarchate of Constantinople will, however, still take part in the liturgy.
Melkonian cautions that “the cross may be placed on the [church] dome at the last moment.”
“And what will Etchmiadzin do in this case? Will [its representatives] attend [the mass]?” Melkonian asked. “It appears that we’re letting Turkey dictate the rules of the game.”
The Armenian press largely ignored the August 15 mass held in the Greek Orthodox monastery of Sümela in northeastern Turkey; the event, widely attended by Orthodox faithful from throughout Eastern Europe and Russia, took place without controversy. [For background see the EurasiaNet.org archive].
Some Armenians suggest that emphasis on the event should fall on mass itself, not on whether or not it comes with a cross on top. “The church was orphaned for so many years and now we have a chance to go there and to participate in a mass. Why should we not go? Because the church has no head?” asked 46-year-old athlete Janik Avanesian.
Whether the church comes with a cross or not, Eduard Sharmazanov, the spokesperson for the governing Republican Party of Armenia, maintained that Armenians should not participate in the mass, long awaited though it may be. “I don’t think this is the way to tolerance and solidarity of civilizations,” commented Sharmazanov.
Marianna Grigoryan is a freelance reporter based in Yerevan.