Church restoration raises hopes for Turkish-Armenian reconciliation





After a century of neglect and decades of political wrangling, Turkey has begun restoring Akhtamar, a thousand-year-old Christian church at a time when Turkish leaders face intense pressure from the European Union to improve their treatment of minorities.

The 2 million Turkish Lira ($1.5 million) restoration, ordered and paid for by the Turkish government, began in May and is raising hopes that a small, cautious thaw in relations between Turkey and neighboring Armenia could expand.

Eastern Turkey was once a heartland of Armenian culture and more than a million Armenians lived in the area at the turn of the 19th century. But they were driven out by what Armenia contends was a policy of genocide by Turks, a charge the Turkish government vehemently denies.

Akhtamar, called the Church of Surp Khach, or Holy Cross, was one of the most important churches of those ancient Armenian lands. It was built by Armenian King Gagik I of Vaspurakan and inaugurated in A.D. 921. Gagik's historian, Thomas Ardzruni, described the church as being near a harbor and a palace with gilded cupolas, peacefully surrounded by the lake. Only the church survived.

By 1113, the church had become the center of the Armenian Patriarchate of Akhtamar and an inspiration to mystics in the area. The island was the center of a renowned school of scribal art and illumination. The region was a thriving center of Armenian culture, but was engulfed in ethnic conflict as the Turks' Ottoman Empire splintered at the end of World War I.




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