Church uproar a setback for Turkey-Armenia ties

Archbishop Aram Ateshian, center, patriarch of the Armenian church in Turkey, leads the service at Holy Cross Church near Van.
Archbishop Aram Ateshian, center, patriarch of the Armenian church in Turkey, leads the service at Holy Cross Church near Van. (Burhan Ozbilici)
By Gul Tuysuz
Special to the Washington Post
Monday, September 20, 2010

VAN, TURKEY - An event that many had hoped would be a watershed on the road to the normalization of relations between Turkey and Armenia became instead a source of controversy Sunday when Turkish authorities did not place a cross atop a newly renovated church in time for a highly anticipated service.

Hundreds of Armenians gathered at the 10th-century Holy Cross Church near Van, a city close to Turkey's border with Iran, for the first religious service there since the mass killings of Armenians in 1915. The event, at a site considered sacred by many Armenians, was seen as a symbolic gesture by Turkey to mend relations with Armenia. Last week, Turkish Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan called the reopening of the church "an expression of Turks' tolerance."

But the absence of the cross, and the bitter reaction it prompted, reflect just how tenuous relations between the two nations remain. The church is considered a historical building, and any additions require government approval. Turkish officials said that the cross was too heavy and that the church's dome would not support it.

The green light for the service was given earlier this year during a period of rapprochement between Turkey, which is mostly Muslim, and predominantly Christian Armenia. Turkish-Armenian relations had picked up after a round of what was called "football diplomacy," with the two countries' presidents attending exhibition matches between the Turkish and Armenian national soccer teams. Those efforts culminated in the announcement of the Turkey-Armenia Protocols last year, but the agreement never took effect. Each side blamed the other for adding new conditions to the deal, resulting in the failure of either nation's parliament to ratify it.

Services at the church, which has been turned into a museum, are generally not allowed. But when Turkey agreed to open the church for services once a year, many saw the gesture as a small but important step in addressing a historic wrong. Armenians say that 1.5 million people were killed in an act of genocide between 1915 and 1917. The Turkish government acknowledges that thousands of Armenians were killed, but denies that the events constituted a genocide.

"It might mean more recognition of the historical past," said Howard Atesian of Detroit, who was among a group of Armenian Americans who came to Turkey to see their ancestral land.

But not all Armenians saw the ceremony as an honest effort by Turkey. Even before the cross controversy led some tour groups to cancel their visit to the church, Armenian commentators labeled the occasion a publicity stunt. The Turkish invitation to prayer at the church was seen as a way for Turkey to score points with the European Union, which has been pressuring the country to grant more freedom to its minorities.

Concerns that Turkey was using the event to gain international favor and the outrage over the missing cross sparked protests in Yerevan, the Armenian capital.

"It was sad but still beautiful," said Mari Esgici, an Armenian restaurant owner, of Sunday's service. "At least the young ones got to see this happen."

Tuysuz is a special correspondent.

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