The first mass in 95 years was held at the Surp Hac (Holy Cross) Armenian church on Van's Akdamar Island yesterday despite a controversy this week about the cross that church officials wanted to place atop. The church was first opened as a museum two years ago following a Turkish government funded restoration, after which a Turkish flag was placed at its top. Culture Minister Ertegrul Gunay announced in April that the church would be open for prayer once a year.
In expectation of the first mass, the Turkish Armenian Patriachate built a 100-kilogram church, which it had planned to place atop the church with the help of for experts from Armenia. However, municipal authorities objected to the cross, arguing that church officials did not have proper permission from the Van Chamber of Commerce and Industry.
Given that the church has been open for two years and that the government had plenty of time to address the issue, the cross controversy evinces the difficulties that remain in both Turkey's reconciliation with its Armenian minority, as well as its relations with Armenia and the Armenian diaspora.
All the same, Aris Nalci, an editor at the Armenian newspaper Agos, told journalist Yigal Schleifer that the cross controversy should not overshadow the significance of the mass. From Schleifer, writing for Eurasianet:
“This is a very important step for this city and the people living in the city,” said Nalci, who came early to Van to help publish a special edition newspaper in Armenian called “Van Time,” the first Armenian-language newspaper to be printed in the city since 1915.After heralding the open as a major accomplishment in Turkey-Armenia relations, why the Turkish government did not take a stronger position on the cross remains to be seen. High-ranking government officials did not attend the ceremony, though the government has said that the mass will not be the only one to be held at Akdamar.
“Five years ago, you couldn’t imagine that a newspaper in Armenian would be published in Van. Previously people here would tell me not to say that I’m Armenian. Now people here are proud to say they have an Armenian friend,” he recounted.
“This is a big opportunity. It’s a big step for the Van people,” Nalci added.