Sunday, October 3, 2010

Can the Akdamar Armenian Church Bring Justice?

"My point is not that religion itself is the motivation for wars, murders and terrorist attacks, but that religion is the principal label, and the most dangerous one, by which a "they" as opposed to a "we" can be identified at all." — Richard Dawkins (A Devil's Chaplain: Reflections on Hope, Lies, Science, and Love)
After 95 years, the Eucharist was celebrated in the Holy Cross Armenian Church in Van,  in eastern Turkey near the border with Armenia. The Church was built by Architect Bishop Manuel in 915-921 and dedicated to the "Holy Cross" and erected during the power of King Gagik I of Vaspurakan. The Church stands on a  hill top overlooking the dazzling blue waters of Lake Van. It is one of the most significant examples of ancient Armenian culture and architecture in eastern Turkey (modern Kurdistan). The Church has been turned into a museum by the Turkish state.

Modern day Van is predominately a Kurdish city. Its large Armenian community was expelled in 1915 during the upheaval that accompanied World War 1 and the break-up of the Ottoman Empire. In Van many families of Kurdish heritage are also of Armenian descent, although this a major taboo and is not aired publicly.

The city of Van was briefly taken over by  Armenians  in 1915 after an armed uprising. At the Treaty of Sevres in 1920, following the Ottoman defeat in World War I, the city was awarded to a new Armenian state. However, this was short lived and with the success of the Turkish Republicans under Ataturk the city came underTurkish rule.

 For Armenians across the world, the Church of the Holy Cross, is symbolic of the deportation, displacement, and killings at the hands of the Ottoman Empire. The  church has been restored by the Turkish Government and functions as a museum.

Turkey has agreed to open the church for services once a year, for many Armenians this as a small but significant step in addressing a historic wrong. The opening of the Church for service has become a divisive issue amongst Armenians, some sceptical about Turkey’s motives. Many Armenians would like the Church to be opened for service.

Whilst l applaud the opening of the church for service once a year, I believe that such a historical heritage should be preserved and used as a museum, a testament to Armenian cultural and religious heritage. It should serve as a historical representation of a dynamic community that was displaced and experienced historical trauma, and historical injustice.   Having the church as a museum is a powerful opportunity for the  people of Turkey (all ethnic backgrounds) and the Armenian diaspora to discover themselves and to open up to the memory of the past and ensure that such events do not occur again.

I am perhaps a lone voice in the wilderness, and that Turkish and Armenian nationalists would dispute my position. My view is largely based on social evidence that demonstrates that religion does not unite communities but is divisive: religions promote: a "they" as opposed to a "we."

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