YEREVAN -- Armenia's religious leaders have decided to boycott an upcoming landmark liturgy at a medieval Armenian cathedral located in southeastern Turkey because of Ankara's refusal to restore a cross on its dome, RFE/RL's Armenian Service reports.
Mass will be celebrated at the 10th-century church of Surp Khach (Holy Cross) for the first time in nearly a century on September 19, three years after the church was reopened following a $1.5 million renovation funded by the Turkish government. The government has allowed Turkey's surviving Armenian Christian community to hold religious services there once a year.
Ankara has promoted the decision as proof of its commitment to tolerance and a gesture of goodwill toward Armenians. Still, it has resisted calls to return the church, on the legendary Akhtamar island in Lake Van, to the Armenian community led by Archbishop Aram Ateshian.
Catholicos Garegin II, the supreme head of the Armenian Church, decided last month to send two high-ranking representatives to the event. His spokesman, Father Vahram Melikian, described the one-day reopening of the shrine as a positive but insufficient step.
In a statement issued on September 4, Garegin's office said the Turkish authorities had broken a pledge to the Mother See of the Armenian Apostolic Church, the country's main church, to allow the Armenian Patriarchate in Istanbul to place a cross on the temple one week before the ceremony. It added that the justification cited for that decision was unfounded, and the church representatives -- an Echmiadzin-based bishop and another high-level cleric -- will not after all attend the Mass.
Garegin's initial decision to send them to the high-profile event had caused controversy in Armenia. Many political groups there regard the event as a Turkish publicity stunt designed to mislead the international community. President Serzh Sarkisian's Republican Party on August 10 spoke out against any Armenian participation in the "imitation show."
Turkey's Culture and Tourism Minister, Ertugrul Gunay, insisted on September 5 that his government initiated the ceremony in good faith.
"The Turkish-Armenian Patriarchate introduced the idea of holding a Mass in the church once a year and we accepted it. This brings us one step closer [to rapprochement with the Armenians] and will be followed by others," he told "Hurriyet Daily News."
"I grew up with Armenians, my best friend is Armenian. We never knew enmity...Whether Greek, Turkish, or Armenian, we are all children of these lands," Gunay said, accusing "nationalists" in both Armenia and Turkey of exploiting the Mass for political purposes.
The minister did not comment on the Turkish government's apparent reluctance to restore the church cross.
Built between 915 and 921 A.D., the Akhtamar church is one of the few surviving examples of the ancient Armenian civilization in what is now eastern Turkey. Hundreds of Armenian churches built there since the early Middle Ages were destroyed, ransacked or turned into mosques during and after the 1915 slaughter of more than 1 million Armenians in the Ottoman Empire.