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Church Controversy Fuels Fresh Turkey-Armenia Tensions

The Armenian church was built in the 10th century
The Armenian church was built in the 10th century
VAN, Turkey -- It was meant to be a day of spirituality and reconciliation, a symbol of warming ties between two historical foes.

Instead, a planned religious service at an Armenian church in eastern Turkey is threatening to descend into a major dispute between the two nations, still bitterly divided over their troubled history.

Christian Armenians initially welcomed Turkey's decision to approve a one-day religious service at the former Cathedral of Surb Khach, or Holy Cross, on September 19 -- the first to be held at the site in nearly a century.

Many now accuse Turkish authorities of reneging on a promise to place a cross on the church's dome ahead of the much-awaited Mass, prompting hundreds of pilgrims to cancel their visit. Critics say the Mass is merely a campaign to improve Turkey's image and promote its bid to join the European Union.

"They are using this issue very skillfully to show the whole world that the Turkish Justice and Development Party and their leader [Recep Tayyip] Erdogan are moving closer to Europe," said Eduard Sharmazanov, a spokesman for Armenia's ruling Republican Party. "Especially after their constitutional reform, they need to show that they uphold European values."

Politicized Issue

Turkey reopened the medieval church as a museum three years ago after giving it a $1.5-million facelift. The government in Ankara is presenting the September 19 Mass as another gesture of good will toward Armenians and proof of its commitment to tolerance.

Turkish Culture and Tourism Minister Ertugrul Gunay has denied any wrongdoing, saying the government had agreed to the Armenian religious service in good faith and accusing nationalists on both sides of exploiting the event for political purposes.

His deputy, Ismet Yilmaz, said the Turkish government would restore the cross as soon as possible, citing technical difficulties.

"The reconstruction, which was carried out by Italian specialists, makes it impossible for the dome to support the two-meter, 200-kilogram cross," he said. "If we put up the cross without making any changes, even a breeze will harm the dome. We plan to invite other specialists to solve this problem."

Some Turkish commentators, however, believe the government delayed restoring the cross for fear the move could harm its prospects in a key September 12 referendum on constitutional changes.

"The government was very careful not to do anything that could be used by the nationalist opposition," says Osman Kavala, who runs a Turkish cultural center in Istanbul, Anadolu Kultur.

The referendum passed easily, handing Erdogan a decisive victory, but the issue of the cross remains.

The local governor in the city of Van, which lies close to the church, has pledged to place the cross on a pedestal for pilgrims to see during the September 19 liturgy.

This has failed to appease Armenia's church authorities, who this month reversed their decision to send representatives to the service.

The Armenian Foreign Ministry has so far refrained from publicly commenting on the row; officials have mostly stayed above the fray, saying only that they had not received any invitation from the Turkish side.

But the case is clearly being treated in Yerevan as a sensitive political issue.

"Even if we had received such an invitation, it would not be for me or the minister to decide," said Armenian Deputy Culture Minister Arev Samuelian. "This is a political decision. And the decision whether or not to go must naturally be coordinated with the Foreign Ministry and the president's office."

A Site Full Of Symbolism

For Armenians across the world, the 10th-century Cathedral of the Holy Cross is a symbol of centuries of resistance to Ottoman domination.

Perched on an island at the heart of Lake Van, the red stone church is one of the few surviving examples of the ancient Armenian civilization in what is now eastern Turkey. Only about 40 Armenian churches remain out of the 2,000 that once dotted Turkey; the rest were destroyed, ransacked, and turned into mosques or schools.

Van's large Armenian community was expelled in 1915 during the upheaval that accompanied World War I and the break-up of the Ottoman empire.

The events of 1915 to 1917, when Armenia says Ottoman forces murdered more than 1 million Armenians, have been a major stumbling block to reconciliation between the two nations. Many historians and world parliaments have backed Armenia's claim that the killings represented genocide. Turkey rejects the term and says large number of Muslim Turks also died in the 1915 turmoil.
The church is located on a remote island

Efforts at normalizing relations between the two countries suffered a major setback in April when Armenia froze a U.S.-brokered peace deal signed last year.

And as controversy mounts around the cross at Surb Khach, hopes that the religious ceremony will bring truce are quickly fading.

Many Armenians living in Turkey say they intend to attend the Mass despite the missing cross, but Armenia's pilgrims have canceled their visit en masse.

Yerevan-based travel agent Vladimir Arushanian, whose agency Ani Tour had planned to bring some 100 pilgrims from Armenia, says it has called off its excursions to Van.

"Organizing a pilgrimage on that day would not be right because the Turks failed to keep their word," he says. "The main reason people wanted to attend that ceremony was to see the cross back in its place."

Even if Turkey restored the cross before September 19, Arushanian says pilgrims would be unable to reach Van from Armenia in time for the Mass.

The border between the two countries is closed, meaning visitors from Armenia must either take a 20-hour drive via Georgia or fly to Istanbul and board another flight to Van.

Not all Christians in Armenia, however, support the boycott.

Weary of the feuding, some say the cross at Surb Khach is too trivial an issue to risk further souring relations with Turkey.

"We made all this noise to let the world know that they didn't allow us to go and see this church," an elderly Yerevan resident told RFE/RL. "Now they are opening it and letting people visit it. What is this argument all about? Things are that way this year, but next year the cross will definitely be there."

Undisturbed by the controversy, poverty-stricken Van is preparing for an unprecedented influx of Christian pilgrims. City officials say Armenians are expected to flow in from all over the world, and claim the city's hotels are fully booked.

Claire Bigg contributed to this story from Prague