VAN, Turkey — For the first time in nearly a century, Several thousand Armenian pilgrims took boats to Surb Khach (Holly Cross) Cathedral on Akhtamar Island in Lake Van to conduct a religious service in the recently renovated church which was abandoned during the Armenian Genocide 95 years ago.
In 2007, Turkey restored the 10th century church and opened it as a museum. Earlier this year, Turkey’s Islamic-oriented government agreed to allow once-yearly worship as a gesture to Armenia and its own ethnic Armenian minority. But the Sunday Mass was boycotted by many Armenians because of the failure by Turkey to place a cross atop the building.
The September 19 Liturgy, conducted by Archbishop Aram Ateshian, the spiritual leader of Turkey’s Armenian community, lasted for 2 1/2 hours and attracted many visitors, including representatives of the foreign diplomatic corps in Turkey and the mayor of the city of Van.
“Today, we are experiencing the joy of praying in this church and of sharing a spiritual tradition that is eleven centuries old,” Archbishop Ateshian, the acting patriarch of Istanbul, told worshippers during the service.
He spoke of a need for peace, saying feelings of animosity and hate send people into “an abyss of darkness.”
Hundreds of Armenian pilgrims also attended from all over the world. Many others reportedly did not travel to protest the fact that a large cast iron cross was not mounted on top of the church as planned.
Turkish officials postponed installing the cross atop the church until after a nationwide referendum last week, saying they wanted to keep the symbolism of the cross from being used against Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan’s ruling party. The symbolism could upset some Muslims; and a parallel force, Turkey’s secular establishment, which includes the military, might regard it as a concession to Armenia and the Armenian diaspora.
Officials again postponed putting up the cross after the referendum, citing technical difficulties, but Mayor Yusuf Guni told The Associated Press the cross would be raised onto the church’s dome in the coming days.
The cross was instead mounted on a platform outside the church for Sunday’s service, and many pilgrims kissed it or knelt at it to pray. Some wept.
Elderly worshippers, some holding walking sticks, maneuvered up rocky pathways to the church with the help of younger relatives. About 50 people filled the church, while others watched the service from large screens on the church grounds.
“This is a historic event,” said Karapet Hajipogosyan, who traveled from Yerevan, Armenia for the service. “I am reliving our past, I am remembering what we went through. My feelings are mixed.”
“The feelings we have are of grief, pain but also of joy,” said Hegine Makruhi Buyukagopyan, deputy chief editor of an Armenian-language newspaper in Istanbul. “I never dreamt that we would be able to come here” for worship.
The red stone church of Surb Khach is one of the few surviving examples of the ancient Armenian civilization in what is now eastern Turkey. It was built by the Armenian King Gagik in 915, and is the most complete ancient Armenian building left in Turkey.
One elderly pilgrim at the September 19 Mass said Catholicos Karekin II, the head of the Armenian Apostolic Church, should have come to Turkey and shown that “the local Armenians are also his flock.”
“The cross will be set up one day. This is not that important,” he said. “This church has not had a cross for 100 years. Did people want this church to be restored or destroyed?”
In Armenia, hundreds attended an alternative religious service held at the Armenian Genocide Memorial on a hill overlooking the capital, Yerevan. They denounced the service on Lake Van as a publicity stunt.on Lake Van as a publicity stunt.

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