This story was modified on 9/20/10 to clarify mass attendance numbers -- Ed.
As an Armenian growing up in Basra, Iraq, Vanuhi Ohannesian was always hearing about eastern Turkey’s Lake Van region, her grandparents’ birthplace and the place after which she is named.
Ohannesian’s grandparents were forced to leave the lakeside city of Van in 1915, when the Ottoman authorities drove out the region’s ethnic Armenians; her father was born during the family’s trek from Van to safety in Iraq.
“My father died two years ago and was always telling me to come to Van. He said this was our motherland,” said 68-year-old Ohannesian, who today lives in Los Angeles.
Some 95 years after her grandparents’ flight from Turkey, Ohannesian finds herself standing beside one of the Armenians’ most sacred sites, the 1,089-year-old church on Lake Van’s Akdamar Island. Closed since 1915, the island church was restored by the Turkish authorities between 2005 and 2007 and reopened as a museum.
On September 19, the authorities allowed a historic mass to be held on Akdamar, an event that drew several thousand visitors to the island throughout the day, including many Armenians from abroad, such as Ohannesian, who had never been to Turkey before.
“I never believed I would be coming here,” said Ohannesian, standing on a small hill that overlooks the church and holding a small bottle filled with lake water which she plans to bring back to Los Angeles and place at her father’s grave. “We believed people didn’t change, that if they did something once, they would do it again.”
With Sunday’s service and the promise from Turkish officials that similar services will be held in the future, the question many have is if the church’s one-day opening represents a true breakthrough in terms of Turkey’s willingness to confront its past or if the event was little more than a glorified public relations event.
Cengiz Aktar, director of the European Studies Department at Istanbul’s Bahcesehir University, says the event may have been symbolic, but it also represents a deeper, more encouraging dynamic.
“It’s part of a slow but steady process of normalization regarding the non-Muslim minorities in Turkey and the glorious past of coexistence of religions in this land that was shattered by the emergence of the nation state,” said Aktar, who is active in civil society Turkish-Armenian reconciliation efforts.
“At the end of the day, there is a reality that is unearthed,” he continued. “This is what should prevail. At the end of the day, we are rediscovering the Armenian past in this region.”
The small church, known in Armenian as Surp Khach (Holy Cross), stands on a high hill overlooking the sparkling blue waters of Lake Van.
Standing at the front of a boat heading towards Akdamar, Pakrat Estukian, an editor with the Turkish-Armenian Agos newspaper, described the day as “very emotional.”
“There were some 2,000 Armenian churches in Turkey before 1915 and so many have disappeared,” commented the mustachioed, 57-year-old Estukyan. “This is the first one rebuilt by the Turkish Republic. This is important.”
Archbishop Aram Atesian of the Armenian Patriarchate in Istanbul led the two-hour mass. With room for only some 50 congregants inside the church, the mass was broadcast outside on a large television screen. Several priests came outside at one point to offer the gathered faithful communion.
Standing in front of the church, Harvey Parsekian, an Armenian from Boston whose parents were born in central Turkey, expressed a mix of joy and skepticism.
“This is just symbolic. Let’s see what happens after this,” Parsekian said. “I wouldn’t like this to only be a propaganda tool for Turkey. Let there be sincerity behind what this is about.”
The event, meanwhile, was not without controversy. Although a cross had been prepared for the church’s roof, local officials, claiming they lacked the proper equipment to lift the cross up to the roof, balked at putting it up. It appeared that Turkish officials were also concerned about creating the impression that the church was being officially consecrated.
But Aris Nalci, another Agos editor, warns against letting the cross controversy and the politics surrounding it from obscuring the event’s significance.
“This is a very important step for this city and the people living in the city,” said Nalci, who came early to Van to help publish a special edition newspaper in Armenian called “Van Time,” the first Armenian-language newspaper to be printed in the city since 1915.
“Five years ago, you couldn’t imagine that a newspaper in Armenian would be published in Van. Previously people here would tell me not to say that I’m Armenian. Now people here are proud to say they have an Armenian friend,” he recounted.
“This is a big opportunity. It’s a big step for the Van people,” Nalci added.
Indeed, a large number of the visitors to the island on Sunday were curious Muslim locals, who sat around the church’s courtyard listening as the service was played over loudspeakers.
“These are our friends, our neighbors,” commented Erdal Dursun, a high school principal from Van who came to the island with his wife and two children. “The history here is difficult, but life moves on. Today is a happy event.”
As the cross crisis might have showed, though, the one-day opening of the church might not be enough to help start a thaw in the now frozen reconciliation process between Turkey and Armenia. [For details, see the EurasiaNet.org archive.]
Still, noted Bahcesehir’s Aktar, the significance of the church service should not be underestimated.
“The memory of the Armenians’ presence here is coming back and if official action helps bring that memory back, all the better,” he said.
Yigal Schleifer is a freelance reporter and photojournalist based in Istanbul.