YEREVAN (RFE/RL)–Travel agencies in Yerevan said on Friday that they will cancel plans to take hundreds of Armenian pilgrims to the upcoming landmark liturgy at a medieval Armenian cathedral in southeastern Turkey unless Turkish authorities restore a cross on its dome.
They linked their decision with a boycott of the September 19 ceremony announced by the Armenia-based leadership of the Armenian Apostolic Church at the weekend.
The 10th century church of Surp Khach (Holy Cross) will see its first mass in nearly a century after undergoing three year-long, $1.5 million, renovation funded by the Turkish government, its current owner.
The government has allowed Turkey’s surviving Armenian Christian community to hold religious services at the church perched on the legendary Akhtamar island in Lake Van once a year. It has promoted the decision as proof of its commitment to tolerance and a gesture of goodwill towards Armenians.
In a September 4 statement, the Mother See of the Armenian Church based in the town of Echmiadzin accused Ankara of breaking a pledge to allow the Armenian Patriarchate in Istanbul to place a cross on the temple before the ceremony. It said it has therefore reconsidered an earlier decision to send two high-level Echmiadzin clerics to the Akhtamar mass.
Hundreds of ordinary Armenians were also expected to be in attendance, having booked tour packages to eastern Turkey through Yerevan-based tour operators specializing in the area which had a significant Armenian population until the 1915 genocide. The largest of those agencies, Narekavank Tour, alone planned to bus 250 pilgrims from Armenia to Akhtamar. Its director, Ashot Soghomonian, said the Turkish authorities’ apparent reluctance to restore the cross is “humiliating and disrespectful” towards the Armenian people.
“We could have earned a lump sum in just one day from 250 people,” Soghomonian told RFE/RL’s Armenian service. “We can’t take that many people to Western Armenia (eastern Turkey) even within three months. But for them and us, participating in that liturgy without the cross is not acceptable.”
Vladimir Arushanian, whose Ani Tour agency had attracted about 100 other pilgrims, agreed with Soghomonian. “Organizing a pilgrimage on that day would not be right as the Turks have failed to keep their word,” he said.
“People’s desire to take part in that ceremony was mainly related to the restoration of the cross,” Arushanian told RFE/RL. “But now that the cross will not be restored, people automatically wonder what they would be going there for.”
Arushanian added that Ani Tour clients will be offered to travel to Lake Van and other parts of eastern Turkey, still carrying traces of the ancient Armenian civilization, later in September.
Not all travel agents organizing trips to the area agreed with the boycott.” “The Mother See has its policy and goals,” said Ruben Markosian of Arpi Tour. “I am a good Armenian Christian, but I see no need to cancel the trip just because the Mother See has decided so. We just want to go there and see the ceremony. What’s wrong with that?”
Markosian also argued that Armenia’s government has not officially called for a boycott, even if it will not be sending any officials to the liturgy.
President Serzh Sarkisian’s Republican Party did speak out against any Armenian participation in the “imitational show” last month. Like other major Armenian political forces, it regards the event as a Turkish publicity stunt designed to mislead the international community.
Speaking to RFE/RL, Markosian said he still does not know how many Arpi Tour clients will actually sign up for the pilgrimage. “People are bewildered,” he said. “Everyone has said they will call and tell us about their final decision in the coming days.”
Both Soghomonian and Arushanian said their agencies may still revert to their original plans if the cross is placed on the Akhtamar church dome by September 19. “If they say tomorrow or the day after that the cross will be placed, we will definitely go there on that day,” said Arushanian.
That the Turkish government had promised to restore the cross was confirmed by Archbishop Aram Ateshian, the spiritual leader of the Turkish-Armenian community, earlier this week. “If that does not happen in time for the service, it will definitely be placed just after it,” Ateshian told “Hurriyet Daily News.”