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Turks and Armenians: Walking the Reconciliation Tightrope

Turks and Armenians: Walking the Reconciliation Tightrope

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This policy brief explores the implications for Turkish/Armenian relations of the first religious service held in 95 years at the Armenian Church of the Holy Cross (Surb Khach) in eastern Turkey on September 19.
This policy brief explores the implications for Turkish/Armenian relations of the first religious service held in 95 years at the Armenian Church of the Holy Cross (Surb Khach) in eastern Turkey on September 19.

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Published by: German Marshall Fund of the United States on Oct 13, 2010
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: The shortcomingsevident in both the design of and the debate surrounding thecontroversial Holy Cross (SurbKhach) liturgy are emblematicof the challenges underlying theprocess of normalizing relationsbetween Turks and Armenians.But the occasion also offeredan opportunity to witness someof the new and positive realitiesemerging. While setting highstandards for Turkey is helpful,so is recognizing that small,incremental steps are more likely to yield sustainable results forArmenian-Turkish reconciliation.
Te rst religious service in 95 yearsat the 10
century Armenian Churcho the Holy Cross (Surb Khach)on Akhtamar (Akdamar) Island ineastern urkey’s Lake Van was held onSeptember 19. As with most steps onthe path to urkish-Armenian recon-ciliation, this essentially construc-tive initiative triggered considerablecriticism. Te relative absence o members o the Armenian diasporaamong the 4,000 visitors reported tohave attended the liturgy was attrib-uted largely to calls or a boycott o this “publicity stunt” by Armenianpolitical parties, journalists, and reli-gious institutions.
At the other endo the spectrum, in a backlash riddledwith symbolism, urkish national-ists held Friday prayers in northeasturkey on October 1 at the ruins o the Holy Virgin Cathedral (convertedinto Fethiye Mosque) at Ani, oncethe capital o a medieval Armeniankingdom. Corresponding with therst day o the urkish parliament’snew legislative year, this public display was marked with pledges againstsurrendering to “those using the guiseo modernity, democratization, and
“Armenian Ruling Party Slams Planned Church ServiceIn Turkey,” Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty, August11, 2010, http://www.rferl.org/content/Armenian_Rul-ing_Party_Slams_Planned_Church_Service_In_Tur-key/2124612. html.
Turks and Armenians: Walking theReconciliation Tightrope
by Diba Nigar Göksel
October 13, 2010
Washington, DC
reedom in their attempt to take theurkish motherland in Anatolia.”Te shortcomings evident in both thedesign o and the debate surroundingthe Surb Khach liturgy were emblem-atic o the challenges underlyingthe process o normalizing relationsbetween urkey and Armenia. But theoccasion also oered an opportunity towitness some o the new and positiverealities emerging. While setting highstandards or urkey is helpul, so isrecognizing that small, incrementalsteps are more likely to yield sustain-able results or Armenian-urkishreconciliation.
Negative Twists to Positive Change
According to those who advocated aboycott o the religious service at SurbKhach, the “opportunistic” urkishgovernment would have been aided inits eort to “score propaganda points”by Armenian attendance. Te localgovernment o Van was criticized orbeing motivated by the prospect o material benets rom Armenian tour-ists. Some argued that nothing short o “justice” — meaning genocide recogni-tion and the return o “ancestral lands”— could be accepted.
Surb Khach had also sparked a divisive debate between2005 and 2007, when its renovation was nanced by theurkish government. Te Armenian media was rie withspeculation that urkey was actually destroying the Arme-nian elements o the church under the guise o restoration,and it was suggested that the “advertisement o goodwill”in the Surb Khach case was distracting attention romthe destruction o other Armenian churches in Anatolia.Te drama-ridden coverage included assertions that the“blasting o Armenian churches” was a commonplaceoccurrence in urkish military exercises. urkey’s motiva-tion or renovating Surb Khach and holding an openingceremony in March 2007 was seen, at best, as a “showcase o tolerance” meant or the European Union. At the same time,the adornment o the ceremony site with urkish ags wasseen as an insult to Armenians.
 Indeed, the renovation o one church and the holding o services there once a year obviously does not suce as asolution to the many problems between urks and Arme-nians. Te good news is that this is merely one o many ongoing eorts aimed at overcoming the long-troubledrelationship urkey has had with its Christian minorities.Even better, the change is being spearheaded by intellec-tuals, NGOs, and various local constituencies. In August,the Greek Orthodox Soumela monastery in northeasternurkey held its rst service since 1923. Te Surb GiragosChurch in Diyarbakir is being restored by Armenians inurkey thanks to legislation passed in 2008, marking the
Information in this paragraph is based on analysis of Armenian media and politicaldebates conducted by ESI staff in 2007.
rst time a ruined Armenian church is being returned toservice in an area with virtually no remaining Armeniancommunity. Tese and other similar examples are evidenceo a sense o change and growing momentum on this ront.Constructive dialogue between the urkish authoritiesand representatives o Christian minorities has steppedup, reedom o expression on previously taboo issues hasincreased, and there are ongoing eorts to crack down oncriminal assaults and assassinations o Christians in recentyears. However, there is still much to be done beore thisprogress can be consolidated, and the act that develop-ments on this ront are still in ux is all the more reasonwhy a responsible and constructive debate is crucial.
Grounds for Suspicion
Among other things, the mass at Surb Khach also revealedstubborn patterns o behavior in Ankara that continue tocast shadows over opportunities to set a new mood andbuild condence. Te announcement only days beore theliturgy that the church’s 2-2.5 meter iron cross would notbe installed atop the dome in time or the service raisedmany questions. Te reason provided — technical dicul-ties — did not satisy most interested parties.
One thingthat should be clear to urkish authorities by now is thatambiguity does not serve them well when it comes to Arme-nian-urkish aairs. Although it was nally installed on thechurch on October 1
, the delay, and the possible politicalconsiderations behind it, ended up stealing the show. In anenvironment where deep distrust and over-analysis turn the
Turkish authorities explained that more time was required because of the difculties
associated with working on a protected heritage site, including the bureaucracy involved
in recreating original features and hiring someone to afx the heavy cross (among thewide range of gures, 76 kg is the lowest reported, while 110 kg is the most common in
Turkish press).
The renovation of one churchand the holding of services thereonce a year obviously does not
sufce as a solution to the many
problems between Turks andArmenians.Constructive dialogue between the Turkish authorities andrepresentatives of Christianminorities has stepped up.
slightest ambiguity into a conspiracy, more straightorwardcommunication on the part o urkish authorities is impor-tant.Tis was only the most recent in a series o similarly dubious actions. Te Armenian origins o Surb Khach werenot even mentioned in the invitations to or the openingceremony o the “monumental museum” in 2007.
Telong-running reluctance among urkish authorities to reerto Armenian heritage in Anatolia as “Armenian” suggests adenial o the traditional Armenian presence in these lands.Moreover, the diculty o obtaining inormation aboutthe status o much o this heritage eeds into suspicions.It is common knowledge that throughout Anatolia, many churches have been abandoned to decay or converted intomosques. Te appearance o covering up such realitiesovershadows the estive celebrations o progress when thereis any.Another long-time grievance that re-emerged at SurbKhach was the sense o being vulnerable to urkish power-holders. For those who believe it is good or urkey todebate history reely, restore its heritage, and expand thescope o minority rights, the presentation o these concil-iatory steps as “goodwill gestures” runs counter to thespirit such reorms should enshrine.
Te patronizing toneembedded in urkey’s political culture — and not restrictedto the Armenian issue — is out o synch with the progres-sive steps taken, and thus raises questions o sincerity. And
Phil Gamaghelyan “Akhtamar Reopening: Decient but Powerful Seed,” Armenian
Weekly, September 29, 2010 http://www.armenianweekly.com/2010/09/29/gamaghely-
Alin Ozinian “Büyük bir vizyon, biraz daha cesaret,” Zaman Daily, September 21, 2010,http://www.zaman.com.tr/haber.do?haberno=1030034&title=yorum-alin-ozinian-buyuk-bir-vizyon-biraz-daha-cesaret
the presumption that the urkish authorities will use suchseemingly generous gestures to demonstrate progress toWestern skeptics also has grounds.However, none o this changes the groundbreaking natureo the renovation o Surb Khach and the service held there,or the act that the event has led to a series o new oppor-tunities. Many people in Van went out o their way to makethose visiting Surb Khach eel welcome. A local multilingualnewspaper printed Armenian content, amilies volunteeredto house Armenian guests, and eective security measureswere put in place. Te Van Chamber o Commerce andIndustry and the municipality have been vocal about theirdesire to increase Armenian tourism in their province andhave taken concrete steps to this end, including publishinga guidebook in Armenian or the rst time. It is importantto put the problems in perspective — both in terms o whatelse is happening in the country and how much has changedin the past 10 years.
Opportunistic Policies and Debates
Even i motivated by monetary gain rom Armeniantourism, enthusiasm among locals or restoring an Arme-nian church is certainly preerable to the vandalism carriedout or decades to nd gold rumored to be hidden within.Whether opportunistic or not, more contact between urksand Armenians and the restoration o Armenian culturalheritage in Anatolia is good, and should not be taken orgranted. In the same vein, the opportunism o the urkishgovernment — whether to improve its image in Europe,bring money into the country, or increase its votes — is notnecessarily all bad. In act this opportunism has arguably ueled many o the recent reorms, to the benet o dierentsegments o urkish society. Intelligently crafed oppor-tunism might just be the best we can hope or, particularly 
One thing that should be clear toTurkish authorities by now is thatambiguity does not serve themwell when it comes to Armenian-Turkish affairs.The presentation of conciliatorysteps as “goodwill gestures” runscounter to the spirit such reformsshould enshrine.

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