No Self-Respecting Armenian Should Accept Turkey's Invitation to Akhtamar

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by Harut Sassounian
March, 2007

The Turkish government has launched a worldwide campaign to exploit, for propaganda purposes, the renovation of the 10th century Holy Cross Church on Akhtamar Island, in Turkish-occupied Western Armenia. Ankara has sent out invitations for "the inaugural" ceremonies to more than 3,000 guests from around the world, including officials from Armenia and Armenians from the Diaspora.

According to the Turkish Zaman newspaper, the Turkish government's intent is to use the restoration of the church on March 29 as part of its accelerated efforts to counter the adoption of the Armenian Genocide resolution by the U.S. Congress.

Last week, when a Turkish delegation came to Washington to lobby against that resolution, Mehmet Dulger, the Chairman of the Foreign Affairs Commission of the Turkish Parliament, announced that he had brought with him photos ofthe renovated Akhtamar Church. Dulger said he would show the photo album published by the Ministry of Culture and Tourism to U.S. Congressmen and tell them: "See, the Turks, whom you accuse of genocide, have renovated an Armenian Church with taxes collected from Turks. And these photos are the evidence." The Turkish government reportedly spent more than $1.5 million for the restoration.

Zaman reported that the album would be distributed worldwide to all organizations advocating "Armenian genocide claims." Furthermore, "the culture ministers of all countries that have adopted or will adopt Armenian genocide bills are invited to the opening," Zaman wrote.

To make maximum propaganda use of this opportunity, an official from the Turkish Ministry of Culture even suggested that the long-blockaded Armenian-Turkish border be temporarily opened for guests from Armenia wishing to cross into Turkey. He also spoke about the possibility of a special direct flight from Yerevan to Van on that occasion. However, the Turkish military vetoed both suggestions.

Turkish officials came up with ridiculous explanations when asked why the renovated Holy Cross Church did not have a cross on its dome. Reporters were told that the cross could be the cause of a lightning strike that would burn down the church! Another official ridiculously claimed that he could not find any old photos of the church with a cross on its dome.

Even the date of the planned ceremonies has been subject to much political speculation and a comedy of errors. The Turkish government originally set the date for April 24. But after complaints from the Armenian Patriarch, the date was changed to April 11. When Turkish officials learned that April 11 was in fact the same date as April 24 in the old calendar, they changed it yet again to March 29, hoping that they would thus be able to pre-empt the negative impact on Turkey of the worldwide commemorations of the Armenian Genocide held in April of each year.

Once the final date was set, the Turkish Foreign Ministry immediately instructed its ambassadors and consul generals around the world to extend invitations to Armenians and non-Armenians alike to attend the ceremonies on March 29.

Invitations were received by scores of Armenians whose addresses had been provided to local Turkish consulates by a couple of Armenian individuals who do the Turkish government's bidding apparently for personal gain.

The invitations offend the invitees by describing the Holy Cross Church as the "the Monumental Museum of Akdamar [sic] Church." Even more offensive is the two-page enclosure which states that the carvings of the church walls "show an influence of 9th and 10th century Abbasi art, which was itself influenced by Central Asian Turkish Art."

The invitation indicates that the guests are expected to arrive in Ankara on March 28 and leave for Akhtamar in the early morning of March 29, flying from Ankara to Van by private plane. After the conclusion of the opening ceremony -- which may be attended by Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan or Foreign Minister Abdullah Gul -- the invitees will be given lunch, taken on a tour of the city of Van, including the historic castle and then depart to Ankara later that afternoon. After asking them to fly to Turkey, in some cases from halfway around the world, the guests are expected to be on Akhtamar Island not more than an hour and a half which would include the opening ceremony and a recital by a Turkish pianist.

While it is obvious that the Turkish government is only interested in the propaganda value of this ancient Armenian Church, it is much less clear why any Armenian would want to be a part of its unholy ploy. Why would any self-respecting Armenian, whether from Armenia or the Diaspora, allow himself or herself to be used by Turkish authorities for anti-Armenian purposes, specifically in Turkey's efforts to counter the recognition of the Armenian Genocide?

Armenians should boycott and denounce this cynical Turkish ploy. If Turkish officials are truly interested in restoring the Holy Cross Church, here are the steps they must take:

  1. Designate it as a church, not museum, and open it for Christian worship.
  2. Place it under the jurisdiction of the Armenian Patriarchate of Constantinople, not the Turkish Ministry of Culture and Tourism.
  3. Place a cross on its dome.
  4. Remove all false references to a non-existent Turkish influence on the architecture of the Holy Cross Church.

World public opinion should be told that Turkey deserves very little credit for renovating this Armenian church. There were thousands of Armenian churches and monuments before the genocide of 1915 throughout today's Turkey. Most of them were confiscated and converted to non-religious use, abandoned to the ravages of time or outright demolished by Turkish officials. To deserve any credit, Turkey should restore these churches and monuments and return them to the Armenian Patriarchate.

Until the Turkish authorities implement the above four stops, no self-respecting Armenian should in any way assist or support Ankara's use of the renovation of an Armenian church for Turkish propaganda purposes.