Monday, March 26, 2007

A little olive branch, but not a cross

It should be spelled "Akh-Tamar"

Turkey fixes Armenian church as gesture

By CHRISTOPHER TORCHIA, Associated Press Writer

AKDAMAR ISLAND, Turkey - An ancient Armenian church, perched on a rocky island in a vast lake, has become a modern symbol of the divisions and fitful efforts at reconciliation between Turks and Armenians whose history of bloodshed drives their troubled relationship.

The Akdamar church, one of the most precious remnants of Armenian culture 1,000 years ago, deteriorated over the last century, a victim of neglect after Turks carried out mass killings of Armenians as the Ottoman Empire crumbled around the time of World War I. Rainwater seeped through the collapsed, conical dome, treasure-hunters dug up the basalt floor, and shepherds took potshots with rifles at the facade.


Next week, the church will showcase Turkey's tentative steps to improving ties with its ethnic Armenian minority, as well as neighboring Armenia. Turkey completed a $1.5 million restoration of the sandstone building, and invited Armenian officials to a ceremony there on March 29 to mark what Turkey's prime minister, Recep Tayyip Erdogan, has called a "positive" message.


"A positive sign and a move on the part of Turkey ...would be the opening of the border with Armenia and establishment of diplomatic relations," the news agency Armenpress quoted Foreign Minister Vartan Oskanian as saying this week. He said the Armenian delegation could reach the church by
land in just a few hours if the border were open, but instead will have to fly to Istanbul, and then take another flight back toward the Armenian border.

Turkey closed its border with Armenia in 1993 during a war between Armenia and Azerbaijan, a Muslim ally of Ankara. The move hurt the economy of tiny, landlocked Armenia. Turkey also lobbied against a proposed U.S. congressional resolution that would recognize the killings of Armenians in the last century as genocide. Some of Turkey's 65,000 Armenian Orthdox Christians say they endure harassment in Turkey, which has an overwhelmingly Muslim population.

Hrant Dink, the ethnic Armenian journalist murdered in Istanbul in January, was apparently targeted by nationalists for his commentaries on minority rights and free expression.

Patriarch Mesrob II, the spiritual head of the Armenian Orthodox community in Turkey, has asked the government to mount a cross on top of the church, which used to have one, and to allow periodic eligious services there.

The government has yet to respond, but placement of a cross could be sensitive for Erdogan, who plans to attend the inauguration ceremony, and his Islamic-rooted government. The symbolism could upset some Muslims, and Turkey's powerful military, might regard it as a concession to Armenia and the Armenian diaspora.

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