Armenians gather for first service in 95 years

A chance to address a painful history in Van, where the entire Armenian population was lost in the massacres of the First World War.

ISTANBUL // Church bells rang out on the island of Akdamar in eastern Anatolia for the first time in 95 years yesterday as thousands of Armenians from Turkey and other countries gathered for a historic religious ceremony in a region that was a centre of Armenian life until the massacres of the First World War.

"This is a positive step," Petros Boyacan, an Armenian cardiologist from Syria, said in a telephone interview. He was speaking from outside the Church of the Holy Cross on Akdamar in Lake Van near the city of Van. "Tolerance is a very good thing. People are the same everywhere." Live pictures from Turkish television stations showed a procession of clergymen dressed in robes and carrying flags and candles filing into the church that was built in the 10th century and rescued from decay by a government-sponsored renovation programme five years ago.

"We are very happy," an Armenian woman from Istanbul told the Turkish NTV news channel. The church could hold only a few dozen guests. Most of the visitors followed the service from a square outside the building. The ceremony on Akdamar attracted about 3,000 guests, said Mustafa Aladag, a lawyer in Van who organised an initiative to welcome the Armenians. Most came from Istanbul and the south-eastern city of Diyarbakir, but there were also Armenians from Armenia itself, as well as from the United States, Europe, Iran and Syria. The church on Akdamar is officially designated as a museum. But from now on, Armenians will have permission to celebrate mass in the church once a year.

"This is a very important development," Mr Aladag said about the mass. "It is a step towards overcoming problems between Armenians, Kurds and Turks." Coming just one week after Turks approved wide-ranging constitutional reforms, the service on Akdamar marked another effort by Turkey to strengthen basic rights, including religious freedom. Turkey is trying to burnish its image in an effort to win admission to the European Union.

The permission to hold the mass followed a similar church service for Greek Orthodox Christians in an ancient monastery in north-eastern Anatolia last month and was seen as a gesture by Ankara towards Turkey's Christian minorities. Akdamar carries special significance for Kurds, Turks and Armenians. The region around Van, predominantly Kurdish today, had a sizeable Armenian population until the First World War. The Armenians were killed or driven out and many atrocities were committed by both Turks and Kurds. The situation in Van was different from other Anatolian towns and cities, where hundreds of thousands of unarmed Armenian civilians were killed or sent on death marches in 1915. In Van, Armenian rebels also killed Turks and Kurds.

Relations between Turkey and Armenia are burdened by the memory of what Armenia and many international scholars call the modern world's first genocide. Turkey rejects that term. Last year, Turkey and Armenia signed protocols designed to pave the way towards a normalisation of their relations, with an exchange of ambassadors and the opening of their joint border, which has been closed since the early 1990s. But the process has stalled.

Recep Tayyip Erdogan, Turkey's prime minister, said his government hoped the gesture would help to kick start the difficult process of rapprochement with Armenia. "The mass on Akdamar is a statement of our world view," Mr Erdogan said last week. "I hope it will not remain unanswered." Armenians in Van thanked Mr Erdogan for the gesture. In Van, many people welcomed the Armenians. When a local newspaper called on citizens to billet Armenian visitors because the city's hotels were fully booked, thousands signed up.

The event also was marked with a concert by the Turkish-born Armenian pianist Sahan Arzruni on the eve of the mass. Initially, about 5,000 people were expected in Van, but Armenian community leaders say a row about whether a new cross would be fitted to the church in time for the ceremony led to a boycott call by several Armenian groups from outside Turkey who argued that a church without a cross on the roof would not be complete. The cross will be attached to the church at the end of the month, authorities have said.

Bishop Aram Atesyan, the acting head of the Armenian patriarchate in Istanbul, told Turkish authorities in Van that the boycott had led to a drop of visitors at the service. "We could not reach the figures that we originally thought," the bishop said according to Turkish news reports. Bishop Atesyan, the de facto spiritual leader of Turkey's Armenians because of an illness of Patriarch Mesrob II, conducted yesterday's mass.

About 50 policemen on the island and 500 officers on the pier at the shore of the lake from where boats brought the Armenians to Akdamar provided security. There were no reports of disturbances. But participants of the church service were acutely aware that one mass alone will not be enough to ensure reconciliation. "One flower does not mean it's summer," said Dr Boyacan, the cardiologist from Syria. "This is one flower."