Muslim Armenians in Turkey Come Forward and Reveal Identity

Armen Hareyan's picture

The truly historic religious service in Holy Cross (Surp Khach – in Armenian) church of Akhtamar Island in eastern Turkish province of Van successfully took place on September 19, without any unduly incident. Around 500 policemen with dogs supervised the peace for the worshipers and pilgrims.

Akhtamar Armenian church, a silent remnant of the Armenian 10th century heritage on those lands got renovated by the European-oriented Turkish government of AK party in 2007, months after Hrant Dink was murdered in front of his newspaper offices. Back then the church was opened up only as a museum, uncrossed, unhallowed, and exclusively under jurisdiction of Ministry of Culture. The things remained there for the years leading to the first-ever religious ceremony in 95 years, despite earlier hopes to the positive developments.

With this in mind, the fact that this church is renovated is much better than thousands of those Armenian churches in Turkey still in ruins.

From September 20 and onwards the developments around the island will be of more interest for those who believe in the power of the so-called "Sevres syndrome". As a nation that lives with its past side by side, the Armenians – both from Diaspora and Armenia-proper – will discover the lost lands of their ancestors and, perhaps, the wealthiest of them will start investing there, paving the way to the Reconquista. Ironically, if this happens Armenians in Yerevan will be more negative about border-opening and normalization on the principles signed in Zurich 2009.

The first signs of this happened just on the ceremony day.

A guy from now-Turkish Mush province, as Turks call those – a dönmeh or an Islamized Armenian – was offering the pilgrims to enjoy grapes from his hometown, and was quoted by some outlets as "being satisfied with the sole fact of seeing Armenians smiling".

Another dönmeh, a 70-year now-Kurdish Armenian woman who didn’t ever get married and didn’t have any heirs, was quoted as saying she "felt perfect, since she was there in search of her roots". This quote seems to be quite symbolic since around 1000 Armenians from every corner of the world went to Akhtamar in search of something on September 19 – lost home and property, to give a traditional kiss to the land and drink the water, and, at the end of the day, in search for oneself.

As new groups of Armenians traveling in those territories of Eastern Turkey – they will have more and more chances to interact with locals, which, in turn, will have no immediate, but sound consequences in the years to come.

Written by Hovhannes Nikoghosyan
Mr. Nikoghosyan is a research fellow at Yerevan-based Public Policy Institute.

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