Armenian Mass at church in Turkey 19- Armenians hold historic service in ancient Turkish church
By Ivan Watson, CNN
September 19, 2010 -- Updated 1514 GMT (2314 HKT)
• For the first time in a century Armenian Christians will hold a prayer service in historic church
• Armenians built Akhtamar Church 11 centuries ago. It can only be reached by boat
• The Turkish government has embarked on a million dollar restoration of the building
Akhtamar Island, Turkey (CNN) -- Muzbah Cunduz' small boat cuts a frothy wake through the strikingly
blue, alkaline waters of Lake Van.
This is a region of remarkable natural beauty: a lake ringed by craggy mountains that at the height of
summer, are still dotted with patches of snow. And yet Cunduz' small boat appears to be the only vessel out
on the water.
That may soon change.
For the first time in nearly a century, the Turkish government will allow Armenian Christians to hold a prayer
service in one of the area's oldest and most famous churches.
More than two months before the scheduled September 19th church service, nearby hotels were booked
solid. Cunduz is hoping for a burst of new tourist business.
"I hear up to 10,000 Armenian visitors will be coming," he says, as he steers his boat towards a small island
at one end of the lake.
Nestled amid the rocks, stands a stone church with a pointed dome. Armenian Christians built it 11 centuries
ago. The only way to get to Akhtamar Church is by boat.
Visitors have to climb up a steep pathway to reach the church's low entrance, where on a recent visit,
chanting echoed from inside the building.
Inside, a man was seated barefoot in lotus position on the floor, singing. His voice echoed off vaulted ceilings
decorated with hand-drawn icons painted cobalt blue and charcoal black.
An embarrassed Turkish security guard approached and interrupted.
"This is a museum. Prayer is illegal in here," the guard explained. "Even if someone comes and reads a
poem out loud, even if a Muslim prays here, we have to stop them."
He offered the man a candle, and directed him towards a dark alcove in the church where visitors were
invited to light candles.
The singer turned out to be Father Anno Schulte-Herbrûggen, a visiting Catholic priest from Austria.
"At least they cannot forbid me to pray silently," Father Anno later said.
A few years ago, the church's roof was leaking, its ancient icons in danger of being destroyed.
The Turkish government embarked on a million dollar restoration of the building. It was re-opened in 2007,
but this month will mark the first time Armenians will be allowed to pray here.
The church is an architectural gem. Its rock exterior is decorated with ornately carved sculptures of warriors,
saints and gargoyles. The façade is also scored with countless small crosses and Armenian messages,
apparently graffiti carved into the rock by pilgrims over the centuries.
"This place is really wonderful!" exclaimed Dilan Bal, an ethnic Kurd from Switzerland. "It's a church and we
are Muslims... so its interesting."
Bal and several other friends from Europe had been performing impromptu folk dances inside the church.
They were among the day's handful of visitors to Akhtamar.
The church stands as a lonely symbol of a culture that has all but disappeared from this corner of Eastern
Communities of Armenians once thrived along the shores of Lake Van. Many were pushed out in 1915,
however, when hundreds of thousands of ethnic Armenians were marched into the desert and massacred by
Ottoman Turkish troops.
Today, Armenians call the Ottoman-era massacres "genocide," a term that is angrily rejected by the Turkish
Some observers hope Sunday's church service will mark a step towards healing the deep scars left by this
bloody chapter of history.
But suspicion between Armenians and Turks still runs deep.
Armenians have objected to the Turkish government's decision not to allow a cross to be placed on the
dome of the roof. In recent weeks, Turkey has allowed a cross to be erected on the grounds in front of the
Meanwhile, in October 2009, Turkey and Armenia signed U.S. and European-backed agreements aimed at
restoring normal diplomatic relations between the two neighbors. But as of this month, the Turkish-Armenian
border, which is located less than 200 miles from Akhtamar Island, still remains closed.
"The church, it belongs to the Armenians," says Muzbah Cunduz, the ferryboat captain. "But the land around here does not."
19 September 2010 Last updated at 15:11 GMT
Armenian Mass at church in Turkey
Sunday's service is the first at the church in 95 years
Armenian worshippers have held a service in a church in eastern Turkey for the first time in nearly 100 years.
The church, on an island in Lake Van, was damaged during the mass killing of Armenians during World War I.
It was restored by the government in 2007 and turned into a museum.
Continue reading the main story
• In pictures: Armenian church restored
• Armenian church brought back to life
Turkey has allowed the Mass to take place in the hope it will be seen as a gesture of reconciliation, but some have denounced the move as a publicity stunt.
Many did not attend the service, complaining that the Turkish authorities had refused to place a cross on the roof of the building.
The cross was on display on a wooden pedestal at the church entrance on Sunday, and the authorities say it will be hoisted onto the dome at a later date.
And many Armenians also chose not to come, seeing the service as an inadequate step from a government which still refuses to acknowledge the mass killings of Armenians in this area as a genocide, says the BBC's Jonathan Head at the church.
Hundreds did travel from around the world to listen to the ancient Armenian Gregorian liturgy in the tiny 10th-Century church of the Holy Cross on Akdamar island.
However, numbers are much smaller than the local government had predicted.
Turkey still tightly controls all forms of religious expression
For those who are there, it is a very moving occasion and they certainly believe that this is a positive step forward, our correspondent says.
This region of Turkey was once mainly populated by Armenians.
Turkey still tightly controls all forms of religious expression, and the government is only taking timid steps, fearing a nationalist backlash if it is seen to be making too big a concession towards the Armenians.
Hundreds of thousands of Armenians died in mass killings and deportations by Ottoman Turk forces in 1915-16.
Armenia says 1.5 million people were killed in a genocide, but Turkey strongly rejects the charge, saying the number of deaths has been inflated and that the people died as a result of the strife of World War I.
More on This Story
• In pictures: Armenian church restored 29 MARCH 2007, IN PICTURES
• Armenian church brought back to life 19 SEPTEMBER 2010, EUROPE
19 September 2010 Last updated at 17:41 GMT
Armenian church brought back to life
By Jonathan Head BBC News, Lake Van, Turkey
There had not been a service at the Church of the Holy Cross for the past 95 years
There can be few settings for a church as lovely as Akdamar island in Lake Van, Turkey, and few churches that fit that setting so well as the 1,100 year-old Armenian Cathedral Church of the Holy Cross.
With a backdrop of rugged mountains and the impossibly blue waters of Lake Van, it is a heavenly spot to hear a church Mass; and yet for the past 95 years, there had not been one, until Sunday.
Continue reading the main story
My parents are dead, my grandparents are dead, and I'm left with the memory of what this place was to them. Armenians were here for three millennia”
End Quote Paul Shahenian
Listening to the glorious sounds of the ancient Armenian liturgy in that setting was a profoundly moving experience; hundreds of Armenians had travelled, from Istanbul and also from the diaspora - from the United States, from Greece, Germany, even Armenia itself - to celebrate this symbolic reconnection with the land of their ancestors.
It was all the more moving, knowing they were praying among the ruins of the monastery - there was no room for them inside the 42-sq-m (452-sq-ft) nave of the church; the monks and priests were all killed in 1915, along with most of the population of the area.
The decision to allow the Armenian Patriarchate in Istanbul to hold a Mass there was made by the governing AKP, the party believes both in loosening restrictions on religion imposed by the secular state, and in improving relations with Turkey's minority groups.
"We believe that it is very important gesture towards freedom of faith," the provincial governor, Munir Karaoglu, told the BBC.
"Also we believe that it is important to eradicate the prejudices between the Turkish and Armenian people. It could also help improve relations Turkey and Armenia."
Those who had chosen to come saw this as a positive step by Turkey towards confronting its history in this area.
"Let's just say that this is a beginning," said Harry Parsekian, a retired estate agent from Boston, whose parents escaped the Armenian killings.
"I hope the Turkish authorities realise that this is an opening - it's just a symbolic gesture right now."
For others, coming back was difficult. Paul Shahenian had never been to Turkey before. His family came from Van, and his grandparents barely escaped the mass slaughter which began in April 1915.
"Coming here is a bittersweet experience," he said.
The Turkish authorities have not allowed a cross to be erected on the church's dome for the service
"My parents are dead, my grandparents are dead, and I'm left with the memory of what this place was to them. Armenians were here for three millennia. Even if the Turkish government wanted to reconcile, I don't know how they would begin. So I think this is a very good first step."
Paul said there had been strong pressure on his family not to come from the rest of the Armenian community.
Many Armenians boycotted this service, either because they do not trust a government which will not acknowledge the 1915 killings as a genocide, or over the government's refusal to hand the church back to the Armenian Patriarchate.
It is still officially a state museum, and the authorities would not allow a cross to be erected on the dome for the service.
So the numbers were smaller than expected - a few hundred, rather than the thousands the local government had been hoping to welcome.
The crush of journalists and the crowds of curious local sightseers who had been encouraged to come to the island for the occasion also robbed it of any spiritual atmosphere.
The church was built by the Armenian King Gagik in the 10th Century, and is the most complete ancient Armenian building left in Turkey.
As such it is very important to the Armenian community's sense of historical connection to this area - and that may be the reason the government is so wary of handing the church back.
Nationalists in Turkey still fear that Armenia has designs on their eastern provinces.
After all, the city of Van was briefly taken over by the Armenian community in 1915 after an armed uprising.
At the Treaty of Sevres in 1920, following the Ottoman defeat in World War I, the city was awarded to a new Armenian state.
It was only with the military successes of Turkish nationalists under Ataturk that the city reverted to Turkish rule.
"This government has been better than all the others," said Rober Koptas, editor-in-chief of Agos, the main Armenian newspaper in Istanbul.
"They renovated the church, which is great. But they must be braver. This was not enough. Most of Turkish society is ready to accept this is an Armenian church. Now it is the government's turn."
More on This Story
• Armenian Mass at church in Turkey 19 SEPTEMBER 2010, EUROPE
• In pictures: Armenian church restored 29 MARCH 2007, IN PICTURES