BY DR. HENRY ASTARJIAN
Once again Turkey is yanking our chain! Once again they have us, the hounds, chasing the plastic rabbit in a dog race—this time, in the form of a church in Akhtamar.
Turkey, in a shrewd move, has allowed an Armenian pilgrimage to the ancient monastery to celebrate the Divine Liturgy. The centuries-old Sourp Khatch Church built on the island of Akhtamar in Lake Van was ransacked by the Turks, and yes also by some Kurds. It was a deliberate decision made to erase any trace of an Armenian presence in what is now Turkey. This was not the only one; some 2,200 like it have been demolished or converted to barns, mosques, or storage facilities.
Once again, with their acts, the Turks have succeeded in dividing us, this time into three: those who are anxious to go for the pilgrimage, those who are not, and those who don’t give a damn about it or the controversy it has generated.
Proponents of the project think that by going to Akhtamar they will lay claim to its deed, and once again Akhtamar will come home to Mother Armenia. Some feel God will hear them better this time around, when previously in Akhtamar, Van, and other parts of Western Armenia he was oblivious to their prayers. At the time, God, church, and religion did nothing to help. Guns did. Vanetsis blazing guns did away with some 700 voracious Kurds in Khanasor and allowed them to live securely in their homes until later, when Russia sold them down the pike.
What difference does it make if one prays at Akhtamar’s Sourp Khatch Church or within the confines of one’s home? God can hear if he chooses to.
With this Akhtamar joke, the Turks have kept us busy analyzing their intents: Why did they do it? Why now? Everyone has his—or sometimes another’s—theory and interpretation to propel and vie for. They give it legs to stand on, until the fiasco is out of their system; then they wait for the next plastic rabbit to be thrown into the race.
The most common explanation is that Turkey is attempting to divert attention from its ills and manipulate public opinion, especially that in Europe, which had mandated, with the Lausanne Treaty of 1923, the preservation of some minority rights, specifically that of the Armenians and Greeks, who are still protected Turkish citizens with privileges of speaking and teaching their language and holding church services. Kurds, Assyrians, and other ethnic minorities are just citizens; the Christians among them have no right to worship their God in public, and all of them have no right to speak or teach their mother tongue.
Others claim that the church has been converted into a museum, and this Turkish decision is to promote tourism. My friend Ramzi Kartal, the exiled Kurdish representative in the Turkish Parliament from Van, whose district includes Akhtamar, told me that after the initial destructive operations, he and the Kurds of Van protected the monastery of Akhtamar and prevented further ransacking of the holy site. Regardless, the church has an unstable dome and no cross adorning it.
I watched on TV the patriarch of Istanbul addressing this issue. He said that through his efforts, the government has promised to allow the placement of a 200-pound cross, which he had readied for the occasion of the Mass, but that the government has ruled it can only be erected after the Divine Liturgy is celebrated. He also said, “If the government turns over the deed of Sourp Khatch over to me, I would not be able to accept it because of lack of funds. I will not be able to man it because my entire clergy, including me, number only 27. The Istanbul community numbers 70,000; there are 700,000 Armenians living in Turkey who are afraid to disclose their ethnic identity. I know them, and I will not be able to serve them. But for the wealthy Armenians of Istanbul, we cannot meet the expenses of what we have here in Istanbul.”
Armenians are suckers! Naiveté has been our national trademark throughout centuries, and the 21st is no different. We are chasing an artificial issue like pilgrimage to a church rather than being concerned about the 700,000 Armenians who are afraid to call themselves Armenian. This huge asset is rotting, and we are sitting here doing nothing other than arguing about a church. We are ignoring their call, we are ignoring our call, and the nation’s call for claiming our land. We are chasing a plastic rabbit created by Turkey and ignoring the larger cause outlined by the Sevres Treaty, which defines Western Armenia. We are oblivious to the impact of implementing Sevres on Karabakh. We are oblivious to the effect the Sevres may have on furthering our alliance with the Kurds, who are struggling for their identity and their rights. We are oblivious to the fact that Kurds are our partners in destiny; they have their rights, and we have ours, in a piece of real estate that we have inherited throughout millennia from our forefathers.
We are slow in strengthening our alliance with the Kurds in Turkey or Europe. A visit to Iraqi Kurdistan by two representatives of the ARF as participants in the Socialist International was an exercise in futility—they were in the wrong church and the wrong pew. More on that on another occasion!
Our leadership has the obligation to find the right church and the right pew, and to stop chasing a plastic rabbit, be it the Akhtamar church—with or without its cross—or some other ludicrous issue.