Friday, March 23, 2007

Controversy over cross grows amid church’s reopening

Today's Zaman
What right does Turkey have in claiming that they are restoring and Armenian church landmark and showing its pictures to the Congress as an example of tolerance towards Armenians in Turkey, if all that they are doing is restoring it to a museum. This shows to what degree is the Turkey is deceiving the world community.
In advance of the opening of the newly restored Armenian Akhtamar Church on Lake Van, a new controversy has emerged in Ankara over whether or not the church's steeple should have a metal cross placed on it.

Akhtamar Church has undergone restoration that was undertaken at the behest of Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan and Minister of Culture and Tourism Atilla Koc. The church will be reopened to the public at a special ceremony on March 29.

Meanwhile, Patriarch Mesrob II, the spiritual leader of the Armenian Orthodox community in Turkey, has sent a written request to the Culture and Tourism Ministry asking that a cross, prepared by the Armenian Patriarchate itself, be placed on the steeple of the Akhtamar Church. The sentiments in the letter from Partriarch Mesrob are echoed in a similar letter sent by a group of Armenian intellectuals and artists to the ministry.

With no answer yet forthcoming regarding what is to be done about the cross, the Ministry of Culture and Tourism has reportedly sent letters to the Foreign Ministry to obtain further views on the matter. Whether or not the cross will be placed atop Akhtamar Church in advance of the March 29 opening appears to depend on the views on this matter expressed by authorities at the Foreign Ministry.

While the Ministry of Culture and Tourism intends for the 1,100-year-old church on Lake Van's Akhtamar Island to be opened to the public as a "museum," the Armenian community is pressing for the church to be available for religious services. On the subject of the placement of the metal cross atop the church, Patriarch Mesrob references past photographs of the historical church as the reason why the ministry should allow the cross to be placed there.

"A cross can be clearly seen on the steeple of the church in all old photographs of it." The official name of the church also arises in the content of Mesrob's letter, with the patriarch referring to the church as " Lake Van's Agtamar Island Surp Hac Armenian Church."

Within this framework, the Armenian patriarch also suggests that annual September Sacred Cross Festival be called the Agtamar Festival, noting that this would have the additional advantage of drawing local and foreign tourists to the area, with choral groups from Istanbul and folkloric dancers from Van adding to the content of the festival.

The patriarch's letter also focuses on the possible religious services that might take place at Akhtamar Church during the Sacred Cross Festival, explaining, "There could be a religious service in the church's old nave, followed by choral groups and folklore groups."

Patriarch Mesrob's letter ends by noting that he is "praying to dear Allah for the continued success" of the ministry's restoration efforts. In a separate letter on the subject, a group of Armenian intellectuals and artists request that Akhtamar Church, which they refer to as "Ahdamar Church," be turned over permanently to the Armenian community in Turkey. They also note that a cross similar to the one found on the church must be placed there again, and that even if the church is not to be opened for religious services, the cross must still be placed there as a part of restoration efforts.

Oskanian defiant

Representing Armenia at the March 29 opening of the restored Van Lake Akhtamar Church will be Armenia's Deputy Minister of Culture and Youth Affairs Gagik Gurijian.

Speaking Thursday at a press conference, Armenian Foreign Minister Vartan Oskanian said that Turkey was attempting to influence the international community by holding a public opening of Akhtamar Church. Oskanian also reiterated that in order for relations between the two countries to normalize, Turkey needed to open its borders with Armenia. Akhtamar Church was built by architect Kesis Manuel on the orders of Armenian King Gakik I between AD 915-921. The church has a central dome with four leaf-like wings coming out in a cross shape. It is made of red "tufa" brick.

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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