During the third week of October several firsts were accomplished in Turkey, with respect to the future of Turkish-Armenian relations, the significance of which will be more apparent in the coming months and years. Naturally, every precedent-setting event is the result of many years of hard work and determination in overcoming equally hard circumstances and mindsets.
The largest Armenian church in the Middle East, Surp Giragos of Dikranagerd/Diyarbakir, became the first Armenian church in Anatolia to go through a complete reconstruction after willful destruction and neglect since 1915. This was the first “first.”
The consecration of the restored church took place on Sat., Oct. 22, and the first Mass was conducted on Sun., Oct. 23, in the presence of nearly 3,000 Armenian worshippers from Europe, North America, Armenia, and from within Turkey. The moving ceremonies were attended not only by Armenians but also Turkish citizens of Kurdish origin, who are the majority population in southeastern Turkey, as well as several prominent Turkish intellectuals who traveled from Istanbul. Together, they prayed for dialogue, peace, and empathy—spiritual commodities usually absent among the three peoples. This was another first.
Due to this absence of precious spiritual commodities, untold numbers of Armenian individuals and families have stayed hidden among Turks and Kurds since 1915. Recently, however, many have started “coming out,” declaring themselves Armenian. Some decide to be identified as Muslim Armenians, some go one step further and become Christian Armenians. A few of them even became baptized in the newly consecrated Surp Giragos, which has already become a beacon for all Armenians within Turkey. This was also a first.
More than 200 deeds were recently discovered, showing church ownership of many properties around Diyarbakir prior to 1915. And legal processes and negotiations have started to recover these properties, which is another first.
A group of around 25 Armenians traveled from North America to Turkey to witness these historic events, led by two prominent religious leaders, Archbishop Khajag Barsamyan, Primate of the Eastern Diocese of the Armenian Apostolic Church of America, and Archbisop Vigen Aykazian, President of the National Council of Churches of Christ in the U.S. The group—which included doctors, lawyers, engineers, businessmen, and retirees—shared the recognition that the reconstruction of Surp Giragos was significant for all Armenians worldwide, serving as a reminder of Armenians’ historic presence in Anatolia, as well as a future pilgrimage site.
These individuals had also recognized that financing its reconstruction would be much more meaningful than any church reconstruction in the United States, and even in Armenia. And so they donated generously for a far-away church in southeastern Turkey, travel there to see it come to fruition, and also promised to act as fundraisers toward shortfalls in the project budget. This was also a first for Diaspora Armenians.
In the spirit of cooperation, the local Diyarbakir municipal leaders decided to participate in the church reconstruction project and financed one third of the project costs. They acknowledged the role their forefathers played in the Armenian Genocide, and assisted the reconstruction effort to “make up for the past events.” They greeted the visitors with signs in Armenian welcoming them “to their home”—another first.
Back in Istanbul, in a similar spirit of cooperation, the mayor of Istanbul welcomed the American Armenian group and the two Archbishops, and provided a snapshot of the accomplishments and challenges of running one of the biggest cities of the world. He was asked what steps he is taking to promote the Armenian-built and -owned buildings sprinkled all over Istanbul, and he responded very positively, saying they’re correcting all guidebooks, inserting plaques, and audio messages at prominent Armenian buildings, and describing the significant contribution and legacy of Armenians in Istanbul architecture, arts, and theatre. This was another first.
In another meeting in Istanbul, the group met with one of the most influential corporate leaders of Turkey, with interests in media, energy, transport, mining, construction, and banking. Members of his corporate team and a member of the Turkish Parliament representing Istanbul accompanied him. The group discussed opening the Turkey-Armenia border, and increasing trade, jobs, and investments on both sides of the border. “We are ready to cooperate with the Armenians, once the politicians resolve their differences,” said the corporate leader, and the group suggested that since “people vote in the politicians, especially influential people like him can sway politicians.” The member of parliament present also responded favorably to the questions from the group regarding issues facing the Istanbul Armenian community and the impact of the current task of rewriting the Constitution on the minorities. This dialogue was another first.
And yet, despite all these positive firsts and precedent-setting events, we also experienced multiple negative—more usual—events in October. The undeclared civil war between the Turks and Kurds intensified. Kurdish militants murdered 24 Turkish soldiers, and the Turkish army responded by killing several Kurdish militants. Turkish jets flying from the Diyarbakir military base bombed several Kurdish targets within Turkey and in northern Iraq.
Then the earthquake struck Van and prevented our group from traveling to Van and Akhtamar. The predominantly Kurdish-populated region complained about the Turkish state not helping them, while ultra-nationalist factions of the Turkish media rejoiced that the earthquake was a “divine punishment” meted by God upon the Kurds. These were not firsts, unfortunately; simply a continuation of decades-old practices.
On the other hand, in some Armenian circles, any communication with the Turks is still frowned upon as treasonous. It is thought that any dialogue with the Turks about culture, academic cooperation, economy, or trade is merely following Ankara’s narrative, which requires that Armenians set aside their quest for truth, justice, and security.
The time has come to realize that it is essential to engage in direct dialogue with the Turks. My late friend Hrant Dink’s statement is a timely reminder. He said: “Both Armenians and Turks are clinical cases. Armenians are suffering from trauma (of the 1915 events); Turks are suffering from paranoia (of the consequences of accepting the 1915 events). Who will cure them? What is the prescription? The Armenian will be the Turk’s doctor, the Turk will be the Armenian’s doctor. The prescription will be dialogue.”
Although still few in numbers, there is an increasing number of Armenians and Turks engaged in dialogue, in academia, the media, arts, sciences, law, business, and other professions, which has started to produce real results in improving Turkish-Armenian relations.
Without dialogue, the Surp Giragos Church could not have been achieved.
Without dialogue, none of the firsts described above could have been achieved.