A mass was held for the first time in 95 years at the 10th-century Armenian Church of the Holy Cross in eastern Turkey, but in neighboring Armenia, the event elicited little excitement.
Many Armenians claimed that the lack of a cross atop Holy Cross’s dome diluted the significance of the mass. Members of the government and representatives of the Holy See of Etchmiadzin, the seat of the Armenian Apostolic Church, did not attend the ceremony after local Turkish government authorities asserted that the proposed cross was “too heavy” to place atop the church. Restored by the Turkish government, the church had been functioning as a museum since 2007.
Amid the row over the cross, Armenian travel agencies dropped flight offers for the service on Lake Van’s Akhtamar Island (called Akdamar Island in Turkey). Armenian media outlets also discouraged consumers from making the pilgrimage to the church, known as Surb Khach in Amenian. [For details, see the EurasiaNet.org archive].
The Armenian Patriarchate of Constantinople, as the Armenian Apostolic Church’s representation in Istanbul is called, officiated at the mass. Patriarchate representatives reported to News.am that only about 150-200 worshippers traveled from Armenia for the service. At the same time, the head of the patriarchate’s Religious Council, Tatul Anushian, noted that the number of attendees from Armenia was “more than we had expected.”
The patriarchate estimated the overall number of ethnic Armenians on hand for the mass at 1,000-1,500, including visitors from the United States, Europe and elsewhere in Turkey. It put the total turnout figure at 6,700 people, with half of that number supposedly coming from the nearby town of Van.
Instead of broadcasting the Holy Cross service, Armenian television aired scenes from a protest held at Yerevan’s Tsitsernakaberd, the memorial to Ottoman Turkey’s 1915 slaughter of hundreds of thousands of ethnic Armenians in eastern Turkey, an act most Armenians consider as genocide. Prior to the September 19 service, Holy Cross had not functioned as a church since the massacre.
Armenian television coverage depicted hundreds of poster-bearing participants screaming “Shame, shame!” at Turkey. The leader of one youth organization, Miasin (Together), Hakob Hakobian, claimed that the protestors were continuing “the mass interrupted 95 years ago … by the Turkish government.”
Meanwhile, some Armenian political figures suggested the cross dispute offered fresh evidence that Turkey is not genuinely interested in pursuing a diplomatic rapprochement with Armenia. Earlier this year, a reconciliation process launched in 2009 ground to a halt. [For background see EurasiaNet’s archive]. “The Turks with their sly diplomacy want to demonstrate to the world that they are a democratic country, but they failed to accomplish their show successfully,” declared Eduard Sharmazanov, the chief spokesperson for the governing Republican Party of Armenia. “What happened in Akhtamar [at the] Holy Cross church was a failed show, and the whole world witnessed it.”
Referring to recent constitutional changes in Turkey, Ruben Safrastian, director of the Armenian National Academy of Sciences’ Oriental Studies Institute, claimed that a “rather tense” political situation in Turkey dictated the decision by Turkish authorities to hold the mass without a cross atop the church. [For background see EurasiaNet’s archive].
“By refusing to place the cross on the church, Turkey demonstrated to the world that it is not ready to adopt European values,” Safrastian said.
Opinion was mixed on the streets of Yerevan. Laura Harutiunian, a 61-year-old pharmacist, criticized the government’s stance. “It would have been better had they gone to Akhtamar, which is ours, and there express their opinion, rather than boycotting the mass,” Harutiunian said. “'I don't even accept the event held in Tsitsernakaberd. I think that … there could have been a better response than all that we saw.”
For 45-year-old Yerevan nurse Armine Navasardian, what matters is not why Holy Cross was reconstructed, but that the church, a central part of Armenia’s heritage, has been preserved. “The Turkish authorities have reconstructed Akhtamar Church and it is not even important what the reason was,” Navasardian said. “Akhtamar is our Armenian church and people must go there.”