Holy Cross Church in Akhtamar Inaugurated Amid Controversy

ISTANBUL (Combined Sources)The historic Holy Cross Cathedral at Akhtamar Island in historic Armenia was inaugurated amid controversy and backlash by Armenia’s around the worked. The inauguration ceremony marked the completion of the Turkish-government funded $1.9 million renovation of the church. Turkish officials are posturing that the opening of the church would smooth relations with Armenia. In his speech at the opening ceremony, Archbishop Mesrob Mutafyan, the Patriarch of Istanbul proposed an annual pilgrimage to the church, which “perhaps could pave the way for the longed-for dialogue, in which both sides have been unsuccessful to date.” The Foreign Ministry in Yerevan pointed to the Turkish authorities apparent refusal to reinstate the 10th century Church of the Saint Cross as a place of worship and accused them of using the high-profile event to prevent U.S. recognition of the Armenian genocide. Speaking at the ceremony broadcast live by Turkish television, Koc portrayed the restoration as a gesture of goodwill towards the Armenia’s and proof of his governments commitment to protecting the cultural heritage of Turkeys ethnic minorities. This is a positive move and holds the potential of a reversal of the policy of negligence and destruction, Vladimir Karapetian, the Armenian Foreign Ministry spokesman, said in a statement. He urged Ankara to take the same kind approach to dozens of other medieval churches that have fallen into disrepair or been vandalized since the 1915 mass killings and deportations of Armenia’s in Ottoman Turkey. Unfortunately, this opening was not transformed to a new opportunity in Armenia-Turkish relations, because the Turkish government has not found it expedient to do so, the statement said. Also causing controversy in Armenia was the sight of a huge Turkish flag and a picture of Mustafa Kemal Ataturk, founder of the Turkish Republic, hanging at the entrance to the Akhtamar church. Yerkir-Media, an Armenian television station that retransmitted the ceremony, aired a live phone-in program afterwards. It featured phone calls by angry viewers that condemned the display of Turkish state symbols on an Armenian religious shrine as blasphemous. Earlier this week, His Holiness Karekin II, Catholicos of All Armenia’s and His Holiness Aram I, Catholicos of the Holy See of Cilicia both rejected an official invitation to attend the event because the Turkish government has converted the restored church into a museum and ignored calls by the Turkish-Armenian community to place a cross on the church’s dome. In a speech before about 350 people attending the ceremony, the communitys spiritual leader, Patriarch Mesrop II, urged the government in Ankara to open up the church for worship at least once a year. "If our government approves [the request,] it will contribute to peace between two communities who have not been able to come together for years," Mesrop said. Koc promised to consider the request. Reuters news agency reported that Turkish officials removed some of the candles placed inside the church by Armenia’s that arrived on the remote island for the occasion. It said some of them whispered prayers and wept with emotion. Turkish officials have made no secret of their intention to use the event for countering the decades long Armenian campaign for international recognition of the 1915-1918 massacres as genocide. The U.S. Congress is to debate a relevant resolution co-sponsored by over a hundred lawmakers soon. In a related development, the Turkish police detained on Thursday five trade-union representatives who staged a demonstration on a jetty on Lake Van to protest the church’s restoration. According to an Associated Press report citing the government-run Anatolia news agency, the protesters carried Turkish flags, pictures of Ataturk, and a banner that read: The Turkish people are noble. They would never commit genocide. The 300-seat Church of the Holy Cross, located on a small island in the middle of Lake Van in eastern Turkey, is in many ways a symbol of the country’s Armenian community. The church was built between 915 and 921 during the reign of Armenian King Gagik I of Vaspurakan and was one of the most important religious buildings in the region. Eastern Anatolia at that time was a heartland of Armenian culture. The church, whose sandstone walls and dome are adorned with carvings of Jesus Christ and David and Goliath, is considered one of the greatest examples of Armenian architecture of the period, and an inspiration for the Gothic style that later developed in Europe, according to the New York-based Landmarks Foundation, which has advised on the church’s restoration. By the end of last century, the church was falling apart due to the heavy rains and winds that swept across the lake. The church, following its reopening, will be a museum and there will be no cross on its dome.

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