An annual religious service yesterday at the Holy Cross Church in Akdamar, an island in eastern Turkey's Lake Van, brought together the faithful from the Armenian community.
Boarding small boats, a large number of visitors arrived on the island in the province of Van in the early hours for the service held annually every second week of September. Among those attending the service were members of the Armenian community concentrated in Istanbul as well as the Armenian faithful who came from abroad for an opportunity to attend the once-a-year event.
Archbishop Sahak Maşalyan, head of the Armenian Patriarchate of Turkey's Spiritual Council, presided over the religious service which was also watched by Turkish officials, lawmakers and citizens.
The Holy Cross Church hosts an annual religious service every second week of September.
Akdamar is a largely barren island except for the towering church with its lush new green spaces thanks to renovation in recent years. The religious service attracts a large number of visitors every year, and local businesses reported all hotels in Gevaş, the nearest town with access to the island, were already fully booked. This is the seventh such religious service on the island. Although Turkey opened the church for religious services in 2010 for an annual mass that is traditionally held in September, the service has been held only seven times since then. After a four-year break, the religious service resumed last year. The break was a result of threats posed by the PKK terrorist organization, which has been active in eastern and southeastern Turkey for years.
The church, which was originally known as the Cathedral of the Holy Cross, Aghtamar and Surp Haç, was built between 915 A.D. and 921 A.D. by architect Bishop Manuel under the sponsorship of Gagik I Artsruni of the Kingdom of Vaspurakan. After the 1915 incidents during World War I, when the province's Armenian community in the area was subject to relocation, the church was abandoned. Building restoration began in 2005, and it opened as a museum two years later. The Ministry of Culture and Tourism approved a TL 4 billion budget for the project, which lasted two years and included several architects, engineers and archaeologists. Believed to have been constructed to house a piece of the True Cross, which was used in the crucifixion of Jesus Christ, the church was restored in 2005 and opened in 2007.
Speaking at the event, Sahak Maşalyan said that the Armenian community was pleased to see renovations on the island, especially the new water pipeline that brings regular water to the island for the first time. Maşalyan said they were happy that the authorities attached importance to the island. "Akdamar Island is the apple of the eye here. It is our common responsibility to preserve and promote this humanitarian legacy. The Holy Cross Church, built with the labor of Armenian people, now serves as a bridge between peoples of the world, particularly Armenians and Turkey. It is our duty to encourage more people to visit here, to embrace each other," Maşalyan said, adding that they "sadly" witnessed conflicts over sacred sites across the world, conflicts over their possession and sectarian strife echoing political and ideological differences. "If only this island and the church could speak and if only we could ask it who it belongs to, it would tell us, with its years of wisdom and tired smile that it belonged to nobody and everybody. It belonged to everyone who is aware that they are passengers in this world," Maşalyan said.
The church is open to visitors as a museum but crowded events were barred due to terror threats. Van is one of the provinces in the region where the PKK often launched attacks, particularly in rural, isolated parts of the province. The terrorist group, active in the region since the 1980s, resumed its attacks in 2015 after a brief lull. Counterterrorism operations since then have reinstated safety in the region, which is dotted with prominent sites for Christianity and Islam. The ministry allows the church to serve as a house of worship one day a year, while it remains open as a museum.
Akdamar stands apart from other Armenian Orthodox churches in Turkey with its rich frescoes depicting the Story of Creation, and scenes from the life of Christ that decorate the interior. Most of the frescoes are still distinguishable, and some are well preserved; however, in some parts they are severely damaged. On top of its architectural features, Akdamar Church's cultural attributions led it to be added to UNESCO's Tentative List of World Heritage in 2015.
Speaking to reporters after the religious service, Van Gov. Mehmet Emin Bilmez, who was one of the guests at the service, said the Holy Cross Church has been of historic importance for the Armenian people. "We live in common history and culture for years with our Armenian brothers and sisters in Anatolia. We will continue respecting their religious freedoms and cultural values," Bilmez said. He said Akdamar was also an important cultural asset for Van's tourism, noting that the city was again a center of attraction thanks to its restored peaceful atmosphere after terrorism was eradicated in the region.