GESSARIA (Hurriyet)—Some three hundred members of the Istanbul Armenian community were in Gessaria on Saturday attending the benediction of the recently renovated St. Gregory the Illuminator Church, the Turkish Hurriyet Daily reported Monday.
Beginning his blessings in Armenian and continuing in Turkish, Archbishop Atesyan also delivered remarks on what he believed to be important issues for the Turkish-Armenian community.
“You, the Istanbul Armenians, will continue to be loyal to this country. As citizens of this country, you must ask for support from the state in solving your problems,” Atesyan said.
“Turkish-Armenians should be considered a separate group when the topic is the normalization of relations between Turkey and Armenia. These topics are different from each other,” Atesyan said.“We don’t want to be included in the process because we are children of this country.”
Atesyan also criticized as false a recent report in the Hurriyet that the Gessaria Church’s reconstruction was being funded by the Turkish government. “The story stated that our church was renovated by the state and that it was only then opened for worship. They were trying to relate the restoration to the relations between Armenia and Turkey, when in fact the church was restored with the financial support of the community. Moreover, it was never closed to religious services,” he said.
“The community doesn’t ask for support from the government because they are concerned that churches might be renovated into museums, as in the case of Church of the Holy Cross on Akhtamar Island in Lake Van,” he said. “That’s why they organized the renovation and financed it.”
Historically, the central Anatolian town of Gessaria was home to many churches and monasteries. The last church left standing in the city is the Church of St. Gregory the Illuminator. Representing the administrative board of the church, Arsen Asik also reacted to last Monday’s reports concerning the restoration of the church.
“Most of the financial support came from Istanbul Armenians, who struggled a great deal to pool together money for the restoration,” Asik said, adding that he thinks the public confuses the church in Gessaria with the Church of the Holy Cross on Akhtamar. “First of all, the public should know that St. Gregory the Illuminator wasn’t an abandoned or destroyed church. And second of all, the state did not help with the restoration.”
The Church of the Holy Cross on Akhtamar Island was restored in 2007 by then-Culture Minister Atilla Koc. Turkey came under heavy criticism when the church was restored and opened as a museum without placing a cross atop its dome. The current Culture Minister Ertugrul Gunay announced that the cross would be replaced and the building would be opened shortly for religious services.
Invited to the ceremony were Gessaria Governor Mevlut Bilici and Mayor Mehmet Ozhaseki, who did not attend either Saturday’s benediction or Sunday’s services. The municipality’s spokesperson declined to answer questions by Hurriyet on why they were absent.
A Gessaria deputy from the Republican People’s Party (CHP), Sefki Kutluoglu, however, was among a few local politicians that did attend the ceremony. After a one-hour meeting with the administrative board of the church, Kutluoglu spoke to reporters, saying that his family was from Kayseri and that he remembered how peaceful the atmosphere was in the town when he was a child.
The Church of St. Gregory the Illuminator is one of the last two Armenian churches in Turkey that have a foundation looking after its welfare. The other one is in Hatay’s Samanlidag district. The church has been open since 1191.
There is currently only one Armenian living in Gessaria and the church itself is managed by Istanbul Armenians who used to live there.
To transfer management of the Church to Istanbul, the community began a legal process that exploited a loophole in the law on religious structure. The church is now administered by a seven person board.
“The administrative board is responsible for everything from the priest’s wages to the money spent for the restoration,” Asik said. He served for the church as a board member for many years and is one of the community members with extensive information on the church’s history. Asik claimed that the bell was stolen and was traced by the community.