Sassounian: Top Three Armenian Church Leaders Boycott Turkish Show in Akhtamar

The Turkish scheme of luring Armenian Church leaders to participate in a religious show at Holy Cross (Sourp Khatch) Church on Akhtamar Island, Lake Van, backfired last week.

The heads of three Hierarchical Sees of the Armenian Church—in Armenia, Lebanon, and Jerusalem—will neither attend nor send representatives to the celebration of the Divine Liturgy at Holy Cross Church on Sept. 19. All three turned down the invitation of Archbishop Aram Ateshyan, deputy patriarch of the Armenian Patriarchate of Turkey.

Catholicos Aram I of Cilicia, headquartered in Antelias, Lebanon, was the first to announce that he would boycott the Sept. 19 ceremonies. In this regard, the Catholicosate announced: “In an attempt to convince the European Union and UNESCO that Turkey safeguards the cultural heritage of its occupied lands, the Turkish government restored the Holy Cross Armenian Church, but instead of keeping it as a church, transformed it into a museum.” It described the ceremonies orchestrated by Turkey as “an attempt to obscure its consistent policy of denying the Armenian Genocide and the rights of its survivors.”

The Holy See of Etchmiadzin, on the other hand, had initially announced that it would send to Akhtamar two high-ranking clergymen. In an earlier column, this writer had expressed the wish that Karekin II, Catholicos of All Armenians, would reconsider his decision. Last week, after the Turkish government broke its promise to place a cross atop the Holy Cross Church, the Catholicos, as expected, withdrew Etchmiadzin’s participation from the Sept. 19 ceremonies.

The third Hierarchical See, the Armenian Patriarchate of Jerusalem, had initially decided to dispatch to Akhtamar Archbishop Aris Shirvanian, the director of ecumenical and foreign affairs and chairman of the Patriarchate’s Holy Synod. When questioned about his planned attendance, Archbishop Shirvanian told this writer on Sept. 5 that in line with the decision of Holy Etchmiadzin, he would not participate in the church service, because of Turkey’s refusal to install a cross on the dome of the Holy Cross Church.

All three church leaders now have a unified position on this issue. They are to be commended for their decision not to support a political show sponsored by the Turkish regime, under the guise of a religious ceremony.

Regrettably, the Armenian Patriarchate of Turkey, the fourth Hierarchical See of the Armenian Church, is still planning to participate in the Sept. 19 show, despite the fact that the Turkish government lied to Deputy Patriarch Aram Ateshyan, and refused to restore the promised cross on the church’s dome. The governor of Van made the ridiculous claim that the Turkish state did not have the technical means to lift the 400-lb. cross to the top of the church. All those who bought airline tickets and booked hotel rooms, misled by Turkey’s false promises, should promptly cancel their trip, demand a refund and an apology from Turkish authorities for their deceptive bait and switch tactics.

Even though Archbishop Ateshyan is a hostage of the Turkish regime, and therefore does not have the freedom to take independent decisions, he risks losing all credibility with Armenians worldwide and all three Hierarchical Sees should he go ahead and celebrate Mass in what Turkish officials describe as the “Akdamar Memorial Museum.” He should threaten not to show up at the Holy Cross Church on Sept. 19, unless Ankara installs the promised cross. Turkish officials would have to take his threat seriously, because without him there would be no religious ceremony. His absence would turn Turkey’s expected propaganda coup into a public relations nightmare!

The last important actor in the Sept. 19 “extravaganza” is the Armenian government. While large segments of the public in Armenia have reacted strongly against Ankara’s once-a-year church service in the Holy Cross “museum,” little has been heard from Yerevan officials on this subject. Last month, the Armenian Foreign Ministry announced that it has not received an official invitation from Turkey. It is generally assumed that Armenian officials would refuse to participate in such a scandalous show, particularly after Ankara tricked Armenia’s leaders into signing the Armenia-Turkey protocols without any intention to ratify them.

Just as the Turkish government inadvertently protected Armenia’s interests by refusing to ratify the protocols, this time around, Ankara is causing Armenians to refrain from participating in this charade by breaking its promise to place a cross atop the Holy Cross Church.

Harut Sassounian

Harut Sassounian

California Courier Editor
Harut Sassounian is the publisher of The California Courier, a weekly newspaper based in Glendale, Calif. He is the president of the Armenia Artsakh Fund, a non-profit organization that has donated to Armenia and Artsakh $917 million of humanitarian aid, mostly medicines, since 1989 (including its predecessor, the United Armenian Fund). He has been decorated by the presidents of Armenia and Artsakh and the heads of the Armenian Apostolic and Catholic churches. He is also the recipient of the Ellis Island Medal of Honor.


  1.    The unity of the Armenian people is always good news. Despite the frustrations of deceptive Turkish tactics, the silver lining is the unified stand of the church and the opportunity to turn the tables on the Turkish government. Our public relations machine (political, religious and cultural) should be in high gear  to ensure the Akhtamar church is returned to the Armenian church, properly reconsecrated and open for worship. It is also an opportunity for us to connect two recent issues, this church and the protocols, to the core issue of Turkish denial and  our demand for justice. This is a time for leadership.

  2. Bravo, Stepan.  I completely agree with you and hope to see our leaders rise to this occasion.  It is time to get smart about using the media and also time get smart about Karabagh.  The time is now.

  3. Had the “Armenian Christian” clergy in Turkey been Armenian and Christian they would not have place themselves in this position tio begin with. We are forgetting that the so-called Armenian Patriarch of Constantinople, which is a tool that ultimately serves Ankara. Time to move the Patriarchate in question to Moscow or Paris, two cities with vibrant Armenian populations. The fifty thousand Armenians in Turkey (who according to their Mutafian have an intermarriage rate with Turks of seventy percent) do not need a Patriarchate, especially one that is being used by our enemies against the Armenian people.

  4. Why doesn’t the United States, as a gesture of good will, offer to send a helicopter from Incirlik to help raise the 220 kg cross to the top of Akhtamar before the scheduled service? After all, what are friends for?  

  5. Why are we playing these games, and why should we lower ourselves to their level we know that they are playing politics, and by testing you, to a dual and using your faith, RELIGION and you are failing in to their trap in one word they got you by the short and curly. But if you all unite and play the same game? Maybe you’ll have a slim chance of winning?
    If you have faith and worship your belief in your own way you got it made. Remember there is neither you’re God or mine, there is only one God.
    So what is the CHURCH trying to prove by playing into their hands? Do you think it is smart?
    (As everything that had started with bare minimum and always being in good faith) but man kind grid turned it to a multi $ business and the church is no different to any other business, and if you think different? Well?

  6. I am shocked a united front!!  I thought I will not live long enough to see it!!  I am so proud of all the church leaders.  I hope this continues.
    Also we should not forget Mr. Sassounian for his relentless quest for social justice and exposing the Turkish duplicity.  Armenians need more people like Mr. Sassounian.

  7. Here is a very telling reminder of the current times.
    The pastor of a small church in Florida is planning to burn copies of the Koran on the anniversary of the 9-11 attacks. Muslims in the US are concerned that these actions undermine Americas reputation as a model of religious freedom and diversity. Understandably, Muslims should be concerned.
    In the same vein, Christians living in Muslim Turkey justifiably feel threatened with their governments unwarranted transformation of their Churches into hotels, stables, “museums” and mosques against the will of their parishioners.
    These are both acts of provocation against the religious rights and freedoms of all people. The major difference between both acts of provocation is not necessarily the bigoted act itself (burning the Koran vs. forcible transformation of a Church into a “museum”) but the governments role in either condemning or helping orchestrate the offensive act of religious provocation. What message will a governments support or condemnation of intolerant acts against minority groups send its people about the religious tolerance of others?
    The White House has already labeled the plan to burn Korans “un-American” and condemned the intolerant plan. Now why can’t Turkish officials muster that same courage and condemn their orchestrated acts of provocation against Armenians living in Turkey and RETURN OUR PROPERTY THAT RIGHTFULLY BELONGS TO ARMENIANS?

  8. Turish officials describe our Church as the “Akdamar Memorial Museum”?
    What exactly are they memorializing??? Our peoples premeditated murder in 1915 or our peoples murderers?
    If the Turks are so keen to memorialize, let them build a long overdue Armenian genocide monument in Ankara. After all, the Murats and Roberts of this world need a place to bow their heads in shame and remember the victims of their maniacal murdering fascists in 1915.

  9. And why is the United States still silent? What happened to its moral fiber? When, if ever, has it spoken out over atrocities against Christians? Think about it? Outrage when somebody wants to burn the Koran but neutrality when a  church is burnt down with the congregation inside.  

  10. Kudos to the 3 Hierarchical Seas of the Armenian Church. United we stand strong.
    Are Mr. Sassounian’s columns published in any Turkish newspaper printed in Turkey? Agos for example? His articles on this Akhtamar issue would add much insight for our Armenian brethren living in Turkey.

  11. Hye, as we Armenians have lost our Holy Cross Church to the Turks’ museum, and the ‘generous’ Turk allows Armenians ONE DAY a year to hold our Armenian rites within their museum (which honors those who planned and perpetrated the Turkish Genocide of the Armenian nation) thereby insulting, again, the Armenians unending – and a lie about the need to place the Armenian cross ater September 19th – another insult to the victims of their Genocide of the Armenians – which was not enough – Turkish leaders still harbor the need to subjugate, demean and insult Armenians – Armenians who were the victims of the Turkish Genocide of the Armenian nation.  In the city of New York there is a Muslim leader (with billions at his disposal) seeking to have a Muslim mosque built very near to the site of the September 11th destruction of the Twin Towers – wherein their ‘imam’ mosque leader is saying in effect that due to  the opposition of Americans to construction of this mosque – it shall cause “great difficulties”…  Imagine, the muslim now is threatening Americans on our own lands the USA!… These muslims seem to have not any regard for all the deaths, losses of lives caused by muslims on September 11th – in New York city and he bullies, as the Turks are wont to do, and believe it or not, some ‘liberal’ (?) Americans are ready to allow such a structure in the midst of the USA financial and vital district of New York city.  This mosque can be built anywhere else – as there are mosques all about, even in Washington DC, anywhere in the USA. Try to construct, try to recover, try to rebuild any of the Armenian churches in a Turkey… where Armenian churches have been razed, used as stables and more, for the existing Armenian churches in a Turkey who have the strictest and tightest regulations  – enough to cause the elimination of these churches should the Turkish ‘regulations’ not be observed… regulations making it more and more difficult and stringent  for Armenian clergymen to serve the Armenians still – today, 2010.  Just imagine – in New York city, muslim religious rites which are pursued throughout (in/out) a mosque all hours of each day. Too, in the midst of the most congested and busy streets of downtown New York city.  Why? Because the bullying muslim wants it and and what the bully wants the bully will get… even bullying another nation while a ‘guest’ on another nations’ lands…  Unbeliveable!! Manooshag

  12. Talar, the Turkish leaderships have not memories, have not any history, these leaders know only the today… For in truth, if anyone else had the history of a Turkey, too, that is why a Turkey of today does not desire to recall their own history of all the slaughters, tortures, rapes, ripping pregnant women to bounce the embroys upon their swords, hammering horse shoes to the victims feet, and worse as only was devised by the generations from the hordes of the Asian mountains… where stealing Armenian  lands, cultures and wealths of the nation by committing Genocides – bravely – eliminating via inhumanity the humans of the lands they sought for themselves – and then ‘cannot’ remember, ‘will not] remember, any Genocides they perpetrated of the Armenian nation.  As I see it, it takes great intelligence to have a memory, to have a history, to admit the wrongs committed such as Genocides… The bullying leaderships’ nation of a Turkey even lies to its own citizenry, convincing them that a Turkey never committed Genocides – when throughout a Turkey, in all villages, the citzenry knows and remembers…. When Archbishop Mesrob Ashjian, of blessed memory,  visited villages in Turkey with a group to visit the villages of their forbears lost to the Turkish Genocide they heard children singing, the lyrics were sung in Turkish but alas, it was an Armenian melody – which shall have been taught by an Armenian grandmother…

  13. I live in a major American city. A huge, historic Catholic church about ten blocks away is abandonned. The city historic commission just gave approval to tear it down, stained glass windows, crosses, pews and all.  As far as I can tell, not even the Catholics are outraged by this. The point is – even in America when there is no community to support a church, it can be torn down, turned into condos or something else. I have seen synagoues that are now Baptist churches or junk shops. Heck, even in Armenia there are plenty of abandonned, ruined and decrepit churches. Despite the faults, and there are many, we should be happy that we can even see Akhtamar at all. And again, unless we are absolutely sure the 1000 year old dome can support a 400 lb cross without collapsing….then it can wait until we have the assurance of independent structural engineers. A cross on the roof is the least of our worries in this situation, and is not necessary for a badarak or for a viable church. For that, you need people. Attempting to penalize Turkey – which just did something right for once – could backfire on us. Take pride in Akhtamar and treat it well. We’re lucky we still have it at all.

  14. So, Karekin? A Catholic church is being demolished according to the city historic commission’s decision because there is no community to support a church. OK, but let’s avoid being superficial. What are the reasons that there’s no community to support a church? Has the U.S. federal government forcibly deported and mass exterminated the parishioners and worshippers of the church? You contend that you’ve seen synagogues that are now Baptist churches or junk shops. Let’s avoid being superficial on this, too. Does it mean that Baptists and shop-owners have forcibly expelled and mass exterminated Jewish parishioners in those synagogues? Do you imply that synagogues have been transformed into Baptist churches or junk shops without the consent of the former owners or legal authorization of the local municipal authorities? As for the cross, I already commented on that in another discussion. In the course of 2007 when the decision to restore Akhtamar was taken up to 2010, i.e. 3 full years, has it just occurred to Turks before September 19th, 2010, that the dome cannot support a cross, or you think 3 long years might be more than enough of a period to make these calculations or, if the notion of making calculations is beyond the intellectual capabilities of the Turks, consult neighbors across the border whose ancestors actually built and owned the church before being wiped out by the Turks en masse, as to how to deal with the technical problem, again, IF there’s a “problem” at all?

  15. No cross, no badarak. If the Armenian Church of Turkey weren’t under stress the procurator would also have refused to attend. Let’s take it for what it’s worth. A shameful publicity stunt by a people that thinks the world has forgotten about the slaughter of its own citizens.    

  16. No one here seems to realize that theologically, there is no requirement at all for there to be a cross on top of a structure in order for it to be a church or a place of Armenian worship. It’s a nice thing to have, but not required. This is an artificially created problem. I’m totally in favor of having a badarak at Akhtamar, but do not feel it should be held hostage to a cross, which may jeopardize the dome itself.  Insure that the dome is stable, and then put the cross there. Kind of simple, I think.  There will be crosses in the hands of the der hayrs…carried by the sagarvaks, worn on the robes, etc.  From what I recall, the Greek patriarch had a very nice service at Sumela monastery and I don’t recall seeing a cross on top of those ruins. A badarak has other requirements, but a floating cross is not one of them.  

  17. Yes, Karekin, only you here seem to realize what requirements there are theologically. You, the one who offended Our Lord and Savior, now lecture us on what is “theologically” required and what is theologically not required. It’s not about the requirement for a cross on top of a structure in order for it to be a church, although a cross makes a church a church. It’s about a cheap Turkish lie in their best traditions to mount a cross atop and retraction from it days before the humiliating one-day Mass. Also, if you think “there is no requirement at all for there to be a cross on top of a structure in order for it to be a church,” could a church–a house of Lord–from the same theological point of view, be transformed into a museum and be allowed to function as a church just for one day? Do you think that a church or a monastery, from the same theological point of view, can be transformed into a mosque? Or maybe you think that from the same theological point of view a church or a monastery can be transformed to a sheepfold or detonated? Well, listen to this: from theological point of view, no Christian believer is required to physically be present inside a church in order to pray, especially on one day and in the PR stunt form so mockingly designed by the Turks.

  18. Karekin, I can’t think of any Armenian Church that does not have an exterior dome cross. Perhaps one of our clergy will comment as to whether it is an architectual requirement or a cultural tradition. But I think you miss the point ; as pointed out by other postings. The cross of our Lord is what makes it a church, it is annoited with the Holy Muron and thus is set aside as a holy place. It is the cross that represents Christ’s victory over death allows us hope through salvation. There is no greater insult to a Christian than to remove or debate the presence of the cross. They have a long history of displaying utter disrespect to other cultures for many decades. They know well the impact of removing the cross to our devout Christian people. I am proud of the responses of our church, government agencies and travel companies.
                You seem to mired in the current state; while others have correctly stated that this is STOLEN PROPERTY AND THERE IS NO STATUTE OF LIMITATION WITH OUR FAITH.
    The central is not our accepting the reality and being grateful; but exposing the theft of our historic property. When(and not if) the church is properly adorned with a cross and reconsecrated, it will be a great day when the badarak is offered. Until then, we must honor the traditions of our holy church. Karekin, true progress can only happen with integrity.

  19. Should it have a cross put on the dome, it can be consecrated according to Armenian tradition. That is why it was such an event to put the cross above our new cathedral in Glendale before vehapar’s visit. Now the question becomes once the cross is put in place at Akhtamar, what is Turkey’s “democratic” position?

    that is  

  20. Firstly, if you want to conduct a badarak, you will need a consecrated altar. It need not be in a ‘church’…nor does it require a cross on the roof.  For instance, we bless grapes outdoors on tables. Next, if we truly want ownership of Akhtamar once again, let’s face the fact that alot is required.  You will need to participate in its maintenance, upkeep and attendance. Realistically, how many of you are willing to do this?  And if not you, then who?  The patriarchate, which is barely surviving? Perhaps.  Or maybe, the Turkish government that funded the restoration?  Maybe they will allow Armenians to set up a foundation to support Akhtamar.  You insist that Akhtamar – a classic of Armenian architecture – be used again as a church. There is a responsibility associated with that demand, but you seem unprepared to fulfill it. Every single Armenian church in the world only stays open because the community keeps it alive by raising money to pay the der hayr, fix the roof, pay the electric bill, etc. Without that, it’s difficult if not impossible to maintain a church and all that goes with it. You will need a jamgoch, as well as a der hayr. You know, there are old Armenian churches all over the world, in India, the Orient, etc. Can they never be used for anything else, especially if there are no Armenians to maintain them?  So please, try to be realistic here. We may not like or approve of what has happened in history, but time does not move backwards. It is not a movie that you can replay, edit or change according to your requirements. You have to live with what has happened….all of it…and, you can’t choose among the things you want to have in your history. So, while you may not be so happy about Turkey…it’s been a force in world history for 1000 years…and you can’t turn that clock back so easily or so quickly. I’ve experienced lots of angry Armenians since my childhood…I’ve also experienced the most forgiving, calm and collected Armenians, as well. I prefer the later and remember them all very fondly. Sadly, I prefer to forget those who were terminally angry, particularly because they accomplished nothing good with their anger.  No matter how justified, it was a waste of energy and not a force for good.   

  21. Demanding justice for what has happened in history (because time, indeed, does not move backwards) is something associated with the present time, Karekin. It is also something that will shape our relationship with the Turks in the future for our children. Don’t mix up things…

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published.