–Our story starts with a small sandstone 10th-century Armenian church, on an uninhabited rock less than 500 yards wide, in a remote Turkish lake that changes colors like moods and sometimes bubbles like soda. If you had seen the ruins of it, as I did in 2000, you might cry. Its roof was gone. Its bas-reliefs, chiseled by master carvers a millennium ago, of Adam and Eve, of saints and kings, were wearing away in the wind. It was an empty husk that had not heard a Mass in more than 90 years.
In March, after years of painstaking restoration, Turkey reopened the church as a museum. Among the ambassadors and visitors at the opening ceremonies, I roamed the grounds. The building is now magnificent. Its roof is restored and its reliefs cleaned.
The Church of the Holy Cross is one of the holiest sites for Armenian Christians, who once made up one-third of the population around Van. They were driven out by the Ottomans in 1915, when some were suspected of supporting Russia-backed terrorist attacks. During World War I, the Ottomans were allied with Germany and Austria, fighting Russia, Britain and France. While most Turkish historians concede there was a massacre of Armenians (while pointing out that Armenians slaughtered Turks from 1890 to 1915 and that most Armenians were relocated, not slain), they hesitate to call it genocide. The Armenians do not hesitate–and sometimes compare it to the Holocaust. The Armenian Diaspora has emerged as a real political force in Western Europe, complicating Turkey’s plans to join the European Union.
The re-opening of the church was a peace offering by the AKP, Turkey’s Islam-oriented ruling party, but all did not run smoothly at first. After spending millions on the structure, the Turkish government refused to restore the stone cross on the steeple. Turkish journalists were quick to criticize. Ultimately, common sense prevailed.
“I cannot say we will have the stone-cross back there tomorrow, but I do not see any problem in that,” Culture Minister Attilla Koc said. He wanted time for an “academic council” to consider the issue. Mr. Koc’s answer might not sound “revolutionary” to our ears, but Turkish News columnist Yusuf Kanli declared it so. Many Christian churches have been waiting for decades for permission to restore their churches at their own expense.