Ever since the genocide, after nearly a century of banning Armenian church services, the Turkish government has finally decided to allow a one-time celebration of Mass to be held at the 10th-century Holy Cross Church on Akhtamar Island.
Questions have been raised about the prudence of attending the Sept. 19 church services to which the Turkish government has invited Armenians from around the world, members of the international media, and foreign ambassadors and dignitaries. Those calling for a boycott indicate that the true aim of the Turkish authorities is to score propaganda points with the European Union and the United States, by feigning tolerance towards Christians and other minorities. In reality, successive Turkish governments have carried out a systematic policy of eliminating all visible signs of Armenian presence throughout Western Armenia (Eastern Turkey) for over nine decades, during which more than 2,000 Armenian churches and monasteries have been destroyed or converted into non-religious use. The Holy Cross Church itself was targeted for demolition some years ago, but was saved by the intervention of a local Turkish official.
Critics of those traveling to Akhtamar also object to the Turkish government’s classification of the historic church as a “museum,” and holding services only once a year. After many requests and complaints, Turkish officials have finally promised to place a cross on the church’s dome.
There is no reason for Armenians to be grateful to a country that, after confiscating and destroying thousands of churches, is now allowing a religious ceremony in a single church, which it classifies as a museum. This church and thousands of others should belong to the Armenian Patriarchate of Istanbul, and services should be held as needed, without governmental permission or interference.
Last week, tempers flared in Armenia when the Holy See of Etchmiadzin announced its intention to send two clergymen to the Sept. 19 ceremonies. His Holiness Catholicos Karekin II usually consults with Armenian officials before taking decisions on matters involving foreign countries. Since he was absent from Armenia while this announcement was made and possibly unaware of the objections raised, His Holiness now has the opportunity to make a final determination regarding the sending of representatives of the Holy See to Akhtamar. As Armenians in Turkey are not permitted to freely express their views, church officials and lay leaders outside Turkey should take the initiative to condemn the Turkish exploitation of Armenian religious ceremonies.
The Foreign Ministry of Armenia announced that it has not received an official invitation from Ankara to send a delegation to the Holy Cross Church. It is hoped that if and when such an invitation is extended, the Armenian government would reject it. Yerevan handed the Turks a propaganda victory last year by signing the Armenia-Turkey protocols. Participating in the Akhtamar church services would be tantamount to presenting the Turks an undeserved additional reward.
There are indications, however, that this time around the Armenian government may not be as accommodating. Eduard Sharmazanov, spokesman of President Serge Sarkisian’s ruling Republican Party and Member of Parliament, harshly criticized the planned church services, calling it a “publicity stunt” and a “provocation” to mislead the international community.
In addition, a subcommittee of the Public Council, an advisory body formed by Sarkisian, issued a statement urging Armenians to boycott the Holy Cross church services. It called on all self-respecting Armenians to refrain from participating in “this cheap Turkish show.” Giro Manoyan, spokesman of the opposition Armenian Revolutionary Federation in Yerevan, also advocated boycotting the church services and criticized the Holy See of Etchmiadzin for planning to send two clerics to Akhtamar.
A clear indication of Turkish disinterest in preserving Armenian churches is the interrogation by the secret police of several thousand families who have offered to host Armenian visitors in the nearby city of Van on Sept. 19, due to a shortage of hotel rooms. Turkish officials are suspicious that host families may be forcefully Turkified or Kurdified remnants of Armenian Genocide victims. By this appalling action, reminiscent of Nazi Germany’s Gestapo tactics, the Turkish regime is showing its obsession to keep track of its citizens’ ethnic origin. In fact, after this racist investigation, a number of families have been officially banned from hosting Diaspora Armenians in Van.
Armenians who naively plan to attend religious ceremonies in “a museum” would inadvertently legitimize the confiscation of a historic Armenian Church and promote a political show staged by Turkish authorities.
It is perfectly understandable that Turkish leaders would want to create a positive image in order to facilitate their country’s entry into the European Union, and counter Armenian efforts for the international recognition of the Armenian Genocide. It is far less understandable, however, why Armenians would help advance the Turks’ anti-Armenian objectives.