Thursday, March 29, 2007

Turkish restoration of Armenian church leaves no room for apology

29 March 2007
The Independent
By Ian Herbert in Van, Anatolia, Turkey
the culture and tourism minister, Atilla Koc, Turkey's most senior government representative, made his address. "We protect the cultural diversity and assets of different cultures," he proclaimed during a speech in which the word "Armenia" was not used once.
Across a blue salt lake on an island surrounded by snow-capped mountains in eastern Turkey, Armenian Christians were invited yesterday to witness how the Turkish nation has restored one of their most holy sites.

From the bas-relief etched out of red tufa stone, to the frescoes on the high conical roof, most of the ancient treasures were back on view again at the 1,000-year-old Church of the Holy Cross, on the island of Akdamar in Lake Van, eastern Anatolia. Except for the cross; the same cross which was visible in early sketches of the church and photographed in 1908, just before Armenians were rounded up, never to return, in the city of Van at the beginning of what they describe as their genocide at the hands of the Ottomans.

The church's restoration had been sold to the world - and specifically to the US, whose House of Representatives is about to consider a resolution labelling the Armenian deaths genocide - as proof that Turkey want to put things right with the Armenians. But, despite the protests of the restoration project's Armenian architect, a cross was ruled out - as is any immediate prospect of this Christian church being consecrated so Armenians might, occasionally at least, pray here again. "The church is reopening as a museum and doesn't need a cross," Yusuf Halacoglu, the head of the Turkish Historical Society, insisted this week. "Around 22,000 Ottoman buildings have had crescents taken off when attacked. Other countries don't give as much attention to that."

The insensitivity set the tone for yesterday's ceremony which, despite the Turkish posters everywhere declaring Tarihe saygi, kulture saygi ("Respect the history, respect the culture"), was a painful and almost provocative statement of Turkey's national identity. The Armenian architect/bishop Manuel, who started building the church in AD 915, employed Armenian master carvers to create Christian reliefs of Adam and Eve, Noah's flood and David and Goliath. But Turkey has appropriated the holy site in a three-year, $2m (£1m) rebuild and was making no secret of the fact. The Turkish cresent and a giant Ataturk hung from the front of the church where, after a triumphal rendition of the Turkish national anthem, the culture and tourism minister, Atilla Koc, Turkey's most senior government representative, made his address. "We protect the cultural diversity and assets of different cultures," he proclaimed during a speech in which the word "Armenia" was not used once.

Perhaps it was just as well that only 29 people from Armenia had travelled here - by road, via Georgia, because the Turks would not open the borders to their cars or Van airport to their planes. But those who did make the journey bore witness to the most extraordinary man in the place.

Patriarch Mesrob Mutafyan believes his people were the victims of genocide - he calls it medzegherm(the great slaughter) - and he would like the Turkish government to say "a simple sorry to my people to ease the tensions". But he was prepared to take the Turks' Akdamar gesture at face value in the hope that Armenians and Turks can live together. "The government ... has courageously completed the restoration project," he said when he clambered to his feet. "It is quite a positive move in Turkish-Armenian relations and I offer my profound thanks." His only request was that the Turks allow the church to become the site of annual pilgrimage, concluding in a Christian ceremony, once a year.

It remains to be seen whether Turkey's modernising Prime Minister Recep Tayip Erdogan can let that pass. It is an election year and a rising tide of nationalism is being fuelled in large part by the EU's frostiness about Turkish accession. Antagonising those who consider further concessions to the Armenians an "insult to Turkishness" might be politically contentious. It might also explain why Mr Erdogan, a progressive who started the Akdamar project and has also launched a History Commission to investigate the events of 1915, thought it best not to attend yesterday's ceremony.

So desperate is Mr Erdogan's government to demonstrate its tolerance of Turkey's 70,000 Armenian minority that it took journalists around the country this week. The trip revealed more than the government might have intended: Armenian schools in Istanbul where only the Turkish version of history - ignoring 1915 - is taught; Armenian priests who need metal detectors at their churches because of the threat of extremists; and, at the newspaper offices of the murdered Turkish-Armenian writer Hrant Dink, a stream of abusive emails from nationalists. (Dink's last article communicated his exasperation at the Turks' initial selection of 24 April - the day when Armenians mark the anniversary of the round-up of intellectuals in 1915 - as the day of the Akdamar church reopening. That date was later changed.)

With the Armenian government unwilling to join Mr Erdogan's History Commission, Patriarch Mutafyan invokes the memory of Levon Ter-Petrossian, Armenia's former president, and his search for common ground. Mr Ter-Petrossian wanted a monument on the countries' border with the inscription, in Armenian and Turkish, of the words "I'm sorry". It was never built.

The Turkish Foreign Ministry said yesterday that a request by Patriarch Mutayfan that the cross be returned to Akdamar was being referred to the culture ministry. "I'm praying that one day it will be there," another Armenian church leader, George Kazoum, said before the ceremony.

For now, the Armenians can only take comfort from the crosses which no one can take from them. They were bathed in sunshine yesterday, away from all of the Turkish stage-managed razzmatazz, on gravestones in the Akdamar churchyard which have stood here through 1,000 years of snow, storms, earthquakes and human carnage.

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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