Thursday, March 29, 2007

Armenian delegation in Turkey to attend ceremony to mark restoration of Armenian church

March 29, 2007
Source: The Associated PressPublished

ANKARA, Turkey: The spiritual leader of Turkey's Armenian Orthodox community on Thursday called on Turkey to open up a newly restored ancient Armenian church for worship at least once a year, saying the move would help reconciliation between Turks and Armenians.

Patriarch Mesrob II was speaking at a ceremony marking the restoration of the Akdamar church, perched on a rocky island in Lake Van, a vast body of water in eastern Turkey. Turkish authorities restored the church as a gesture to its neighbor and its own ethnic Armenian minority, but opened it up as a museum — not a place of worship.

Mesrob expressed gratitude for the restoration of the sandstone church but added: "Our request from our government is for a religious and cultural service to be held at the church every year and for a festival to be organized."

"If our government approves, it will contribute to peace between two communities who have not been able to come together for years," Mesrob said.

Akdamar's restoration — at a cost of US$1.5 million (€1.1 million) — has been showcased as a step by Turkey to help overcome historical animosity between Turkey and Armenia, who are locked in a bitter dispute over mass killings of Armenians in Turkey around the time of World War I.

Turkey has no diplomatic ties with Armenia but still invited Armenian officials to the ceremony. Armenia's Deputy Culture Minister Gagik Gyurjyan, accompanied by a 20-member delegation, including officials, historians and other experts, traveled to Turkey for the ceremony.

One of the finest surviving monuments of Armenian culture 1,000 years ago, the church had deteriorated over the past century, neglected in the years following the mass killings of Armenians at the hands of Ottoman Turks. Rainwater seeped through the collapsed, conical dome. Its basalt floors were dug up by treasure-hunters, its facade riddled with bullet holes.

On Thursday, police detained five trade-union representatives who staged a demonstration on a jetty on Lake Van to protest the church's restoration. The protesters carried Turkish flags, pictures of Mustafa Kemal Ataturk, modern Turkey's founder, and a banner that read: "The Turkish people are noble. They would never commit genocide," the government-run Anatolia news agency reported.

Akdamar, called the Church of Surp Khach, or Holy Cross, was inaugurated in A.D. 921. Written records say the church was near a harbor and a palace on the island on Lake Van, but only the church survived.

Armenia has welcomed the restoration, but said a better move toward improved ties would be the opening up of the border with Armenia and the establishment of diplomatic relations.

Turkey closed its border with Armenia in 1993 during a war between Armenia and Azerbaijan, a Muslim ally of Ankara. Landlocked Armenia's economy suffered as a result.

Turkey is lobbying hard against a proposed U.S. congressional resolution that would recognize the killings of Armenians in the last century as genocide.

Some of Turkey's 65,000 Armenian Orthodox Christians complain of harassment in Turkey, which has an overwhelmingly Muslim population.

Hrant Dink, an ethnic Armenian journalist murdered in Istanbul in January, was apparently targeted by nationalists for his commentaries on minority rights and free expression.

Associated Press writer Selcan Hacaoglu contributed to this report

Note: Above are excerpts from the article. The full article appears here. Clarifications and comments by me are contained in {}. Deletions are marked by [...]. The bold emphasis is mine.



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