In 2007 I was invited to participate in the reopening of the Church of the Holy Cross on Akhtamar Island after its renovation by the Turkish government. I knew that a number of Armenian officials, diasporans, and clergy would attend the opening. But despite my initial plans to attend and despite my commitment to reconciliation work between the Armenians and the Turks, I eventually declined the invitation. The reason I declined was not because the church was opened not as a church but as a museum, and not because it had no cross on it. These were serious shortcomings, but the positives of the restoration of an Armenian monument after a century of destruction and denial would still be an important enough (half-)step that I would want to show solidarity with. The reason that I declined was the text of the invitation itself, which did not contain any reference to the Armenian origin of the church, and instead described it as a “monument of Central Asian architecture.” I declined the invitation because I believed the text of the invitation was in direct contradiction with the proclaimed intention of the organizers. What should have been a step away from destruction and denial was becoming instead a step back toward denial.
Three years later, I see a mix of progress and regression. Yes, the Church is still a museum, but the first liturgy was held by the Armenian Patriarchate of Istanbul on Sept. 19, 2010. A cross is also in the making, though its installation was delayed for political reasons internal to Turkey and the first liturgy was held without a cross on the church. The representatives of the Armenian government, diaspora, Etchmiadzin, and many others boycotted the ceremony calling it a “Turkish show.” Only a few hundred people attended; these were reportedly mostly Armenians living in Istanbul.
The failure to install the cross on time for the liturgy was cited as the main reason for the boycott. I am sure that for many, this was indeed the reason. For others this was a convenient excuse. For those who supported the process of normalization of Armenia-Turkey relations and the signing of the October 2009 protocols and were disillusioned, this was an opportunity to slap Turkey back for its failure to ratify the protocols in the parliament. For those who already had a harder line on Turkey, this was an opportunity to step up the anti-Turkish rhetoric and make calls for a nationwide anti-Turkish mobilization.
As an Armenian, and as a human, I am surely concerned about the consistent half-heartedness of this “good will gesture.” I respect the rights of everyone who decided to boycott the liturgy and who decided to write on the subject or otherwise express their concerns or disagreements. However, as an Armenian, and as a human, I am also concerned about the demonizing and extremely antagonistic tone that the Armenian media has taken in respect to the liturgy. The opening of the church has been turned into a target and a weapon of a propaganda war.
I understand that the Turkish government also used it for propaganda. It is likely that some of the enablers of the project were motivated by the desire to impress the West rather than by the considerations of reconciliation or justice. In an ideal world this would not be the case. At the same time, thousands of other groundbreaking developments and human rights legislation in every corner of the world also came as a result of outside pressure or are dictated by the development of a new normative regime.
We have witnessed a century of policies of systematic destruction and denial of Armenian heritage. Restoring Akhtamar alone is not going to make it right. But it is a step in the right direction and not the only step. Since the opening of the Akhtamar Church, hundreds of books and articles on the genocide have been written or translated into Turkish, the first commemorations of April 24 were held in Taksim Square and Ankara in 2010, and 30,000 people signed an apology in 2009. More importantly, each of these steps came with criticism of its shortcomings and suggestions for improvement, including from progressive or critical voices within Turkey. The process of restoration of Akhtamar is a good step mishandled. It can and should be criticized. But using it for anti-Turkish propaganda serves no other purpose but to incite intolerance and hatred.
Despite the missteps, despite the outright and ugly use of it for self-serving propaganda by both sides, the restoration of Akhtamar is a small and deficient but powerful seed that has the potential to turn the tide. The rest is up to us. Each of us has a choice to make.