ISTANBUL (Hurriyet)—The Holy Cross Armenian Church on the island of Akhtamar in Van will be reopened in September 2010 for prayer and a cross will be placed on its dome, officials at the Turkish Culture and Tourism Ministry reported Friday, ending months of speculation on the fate of the church, located in the historic cradle of Armenian civilization.
The Armenian church, left barren and in shambles after the Armenian Genocide, was renovated and opened as a museum in 2007 by former Culture Minister Atilla Koc. The move sparked outrage among Turkey’s Armenian community, angry over the desecration of the holy site when the government refused to open the church for prayers or place a cross on its dome.
Buildings designated as museums are not allowed to host religious services under Turkish law.
According to Hurriyet, the current Culture Minister Ertugrul Gunay said his ministry is making the final legal arrangements to allow the church to be open for prayer once a year.
Last week, however, the daily Milliyet and other Turkish newspapers announced that the ministry was no longer considering opening Holy Cross for prayer.
Culture Ministry officials, however, denied the reports, saying that the church would be opened for prayer in September 2010 with a cross on the building’s roof, Hurriyet said. According to ministry sources, Milliyet’s story was based on old information; in fact, they said, the legal preparations for opening the church to prayer are continuing rapidly.
Gunay said there are obstacles to churches in addition to Holy Cross being opened for prayer, adding that the ministry is handling the legal arrangements very carefully to prevent similar difficulties in the future.
Turkish officials claim that the renovation of the church holds symbolic importance in the normalization process between Turkey and Armenia, arguing that the initiative kickstarted dialogue between the two countries before the Turkish-Armenian soccer match in 2008.
The process began when former minister Koc contacted Gagik Gurciyan, the deputy culture minister of Armenia at that time, to provide experts from Armenia to come to Turkey to inspect the church. Turkish and Armenian experts ostensibly engaged in a coordinated effort aimed at restoring Holy Cross.
Leaving the church without a cross and opening it as a museum, however, disappointed Armenians. During the restoration, a replica of the original cross was prepared by experts according to the traditions of the Apostolic Church. That cross was brought to Istanbul and delivered to Mesrop II, the patriarch of Turkish Armenians.
The cross is still at the Istanbul patriarchate, waiting to be placed on the church.