By Ayse Gunaysu and Nadya Uygun
Special for the Armenian Weekly
On Oct. 2, 2012, members of the Revolutionary Socialist Labor Party (DSIP) gathered in front of the Haberturk offices, a mainstream print and visual media group, carrying a banner that read, “Fatih Altayli: Return the Church [to its Owners].” The smaller placards in their hands expressed their demand clearly: “This heritage is a reward of the Genocide!” “Give the seized churches and Armenian villages back to their true owners!” “How and why on earth a person can own a church?” “We are all Hrant, we are all Armenian!”
Who is Fatih Altayli?
Altayli is one of the most enthusiastic public denialists in Turkey. On a television program, in the presence of Agos editor-in-chief Rober Koptas, he said he would spit in the face of whoever said Armenians were subjected to genocide. He is a male chauvinist and an ardent sexist, and is aggressive towards the women’s rights struggle in Turkey. Referring to an almost legendary human rights lawyer, Eren Keskin, he said (again, on TV), “The first instance I meet her, I will sexually harass her,” presumably because of her efforts to extend legal help for women raped and sexually harassed while under the custody of the Turkish armed forces and police. Keskin had already been turned into a hated figure by the state, by nationalists—the everyday, ordinary-life nationalists, meaning the majority of the Turkish public—and was receiving death threats.
Genocide and wealth
In the Sept. 22, 2012 issue of the Daily Taraf,1 a report titled “What will become of the church owned by Fatih?” told of the Varakavank Armenian Church in Van’s Yukari Bakrac village. According to the report, when the Provincial Directorate of Culture in Van petitioned to restore this historic building, the response from the title deed department clearly indicated that the church, and also the entire village, belonged to Husamettin Altayli—that is, the grandfather of Fatih Altayli, a well-known anchorman, the producer of a popular talk show, and the chief editor of the daily Haberturk, a mainstream newspaper with one of the highest circulation numbers in Turkey.
There is no need to ask the question, “How come a Turkish man owns an Armenian church?” The Armenians of the Yukari Bakrac village were massacred or deported, which encompasses robbery, the abduction of girls and women, and death as a result of disease and deprivation. And one of the local notables of the region, Hayrettin Bey, got hold of the ownership of the village, including the church!
The editor and founder of the Birzamanlar Yayincilik publishing house, well-known both in Turkey and abroad for the books he published on the Armenian (and also other Christian peoples’) historical heritage left to dilapidation in what is now Turkey, warns that the longer the church remains the private property of Altayli, the quicker its disintegration. “The Van Directorate of Culture’s argument that they couldn’t find the owners [of the church] is not convincing at all,” he points out. “Everybody in Van knows that the ownership of the village had in the past been transferred to Husamettin Altayli. Each time I visit the region, I see the church in even worse shape. Last year’s [October 2011] earthquake in Van destroyed the entrance all together. The delay in the restoration results in irreversible destruction.”2
In an interview with Altayli by the weekly Agos newspaper, he admitted that the Armenian church is located on land belonging to his family and that he is ready to hand over the ownership of the historic church either to the Culture and Tourism Ministry or the Armenian community without asking for a penny. It was noted that there were almost 350 unique manuscripts, precious icons, crosses, paintings, and sacred objects found in the monastery within the church complex
Campaign against Altayli
The news report triggered a social media campaign by a group of Armenians in Turkey, led by the activist Nadya Uygun. A petition addressed to Altayli was opened for signatures. Here is a summary of the text:
“We were surprised and deeply regretted to learn from the press your statements about the Armenian church you inherited [from your family]. You are, of course, not directly responsible for the damage done to the Armenian cultural heritage up until now. However, by continuing your current attitude you will be responsible for the fate of the church from now on. Putting your political point of view aside, you are a very well-known journalist in Turkey. Don’t put yourself to shame. Apply to the Armenian Patriarchate of Turkey and transfer the title deed of the church to the concerned [Armenian community] foundation. We don’t want to go into how your grandfathers happened to take over the ownership of the whole village including the church, because we all know that you are part of the denialist front. But just stop for a moment and think: How can a Muslim Turk own an Armenian church? Do what you promised without delay. Don’t bleed our wound any longer. Don’t make fun of our feelings.”
No progress in two years
Nadya Uygun even sent a personal letter to Altayli. “After it has become very clear that Fatih Altayli is the owner of the church known as Varakavank Church and the village where the church is located, I wrote him a letter asking that the property be given back to its true owners, and this absurd church-ownership come to an end,” she says. “Altayli answered by saying that no government authority has approached him to respond to his offer to give back the church to its owners, and that they displayed no interest in cooperating in giving it back to the Armenian community or the Patriarchate of Istanbul. However, he didn’t mention the reason why he himself didn’t approach the Patriarchate and formally take any step to solve the issue.”
Seeing that there was still no progress to save the church, Nadya Uygun finally took a step last month to bring the matter to the public attention again and formally approached the governor’s office in Van. However, she found that the staff had changed and the new ones knew nothing about the case. The gloomy picture was complemented with the fact that the Turkish media didn’t find the situation “newsworthy” except Sesonline portal where an article was released on the current situation of the Varakavank Church with the heading: “Fatih Altaylı, keep your promise and give back the church!”3
On Dec. 23, 2011, during a live panel discussion on TV, in which Koptas participated as well, Altayli raised the issue of the Armenian Genocide Bill passed in France. He gradually grew more and more aggressive and said, “We might have murdered Armenians, they might have killed Turks, but no one in the world can say Turks committed genocide. I will spit on the face of whoever dares to say this. Even if our parliament says this I will spit on its door.” He said this while Koptas, the chief editor of Hrant Dink’s newspaper and a descendant of genocide survivors, sat right in front of him.
Altayli’s name is also remembered in connection with Hotel Vartan, which was opened by Victor Bedoian, an Armenian from the U.S., in 2001. Bedoian was a businessman who had set up a tourism company in Van and bought a hotel, which he named Vartan. As soon as the news reached the Turkish media that the name was Armenian and meant “victory,” hell broke loose. The governor’s office of Van took immediate action, canceled the license for the operation of the hotel, called the police, and removed the name and stars on the facade. Bedoian was given only one day to evacuate the building. It was reported then in the press that the two actors who had played an important part in this reaction were the provincial head of the ultra-nationalist Buyuk Birlik Partisi (Great Unity Party, or BBP) and Fatih Altayli. The first had issued a press release stating that an Armenian had set up a business in Van and would use it for “separatist” activities; the second, Altayli, wrote that some Armenians started to buy immovables in Van and [the government] should intervene to stop it.4
A hater of women’s rights
Let’s return to the story of Altayli’s dirty insult to Eren Keskin. But first let’s recall who she is. A contributor to the Armenian Weekly, Keskin has been a legendary human rights lawyer in Turkey for more than 20 years, and has given her life to defending the victims of gross human rights violations; the families of those who went missing while under custody of the Turkish military and police force; the victims of extra-judicial executions; killed guerillas whose bodies were subjected to post-mortem torture, mutilation, and burning; and persons under threat. She is also the founder and director of the Project for Legal Aid to Victims of Rape and Sexual Violence by Security Forces in Turkey. Between 1997 and 2012, 363 women applied to the Project for legal aid. From the start, the Project has been supported by the UN Committee Against Torture. Apart from hundreds up until now, 18 cases are currently ongoing against Eren Keskin on charges tantamount to treason.
But the biggest target of the Turkish state and the nationalist majority has been the rape victims project. It was condemned and labeled as slander against the Turkish armed forces.
‘I will sexually harass her!’
It was then that Fatih Altayli talked about her. “As is known,” he began, “Eren Keskin is a lawyer. French people have a word for such women—they call them ‘mal…’ But I wouldn’t like to use the full expression here on a TV program. These women look for a reason to attack. I think Eren Keskin is one of them. In fact, we should not take these women seriously. Talking at a meeting in Cologne, Germany, she slandered the Turkish army by saying that soldiers sexually abuse women and perform virginity tests on married women just to torture them. I swear I will sexually harass this woman at the first instance I come across her. … I guess Eren Keskin’s real intention is to ask, ‘Why don’t you sexually harass me?’ Is she a maniac or what?”
Now, an important note on what Altayli meant by the French expression he mentioned: The full expression is “mal baiseé.” For those, like myself, who are unfamiliar with this expression, it literally means “badly f—ed.” But it is used for sexually unsatisfied women, and male chauvinists/sexists both in France and elsewhere in the world—just like Turkey, as we see in the example of Fatih Altayli—tend to attribute every protest by a woman to her being “sexually unsatisfied”! Very suitable for denialists as well!
About the church
Nadya Uygun compiled information about the Varakavank Church in Van for readers of the Armenian Weekly.
Founded in the early 11th century, on a pre-existing religious site, it was the richest and best-known monastery in the Armenian kingdom of Vaspurakan and, in later centuries, was the seat of the archbishop of the Armenian Apostolic Church in Van. On April 30, 1915, the Ottoman army destroyed the monastery during the Siege of Van. Its ruins are still visible in the Kurdish-populated village of Bakracli that later developed on the same site.
The Monastery of Varak was founded by King Senekerim-Hovhannes of the Artsruni Dynasty early in his reign (1003-24) to house a relic of the True Cross that had been kept in a simple 7th century hermitage on the same site. The interior of the central church recalls features found in the Saint Hripsime Church at Etchmiadzin in Armenia. A now-destroyed inscription on a church to the south of the main complex indicates that the site had already been expanded by Senekerim’s wife, Queen Khoshush, in the 980’s. It was also the location of the necropolis of the Artsruni kings.
Over the years, Varakavank became the richest and most celebrated monastery of the Lake Van area. The Armenian archbishops of Van resided here until the late 19th century. One of them, the future Catholicos Mkrtich Khrimian “Hayrik,” founded “Artsiv Vaspurakani” (the Eagle of Vaspurakan), the first newspaper to be printed in historical Armenia.
Among the burials at the necropolis of the Artsruni House at Varakavank were King Senekerim-Hovhannes, who died in 1024 in Sebasteia (Sebastia, Sivas) and Queen Khoshush, the widowed wife of King Senekerim-Hovhaness, buried by his side.
Nadya Uygun argues that all such Armenian property must be given back to their true owners or to the city of Van as soon as possible. Of course, this is not limited to Varakavank, since thousands and thousands of Armenian churches, houses, and schools have been demolished, abused, or handed over to Muslim owners, including almost 80 percent of all official buildings in every city in Anatolia.
 See www.taraf.com.tr/haber-ne-olacak-fatih-in-kilisesinin-bu-hali-103126
3 See www.sesonline.net/php/genel_sayfa.php?KartNo=58450
4 See www.savaskarsitlari.org/arsiv.asp?ArsivTipID=5&ArsivAnaID=2625