Armenian Christians Celebrate Rare Mass In Turkey
STEVE INSKEEP, host:
This next story takes us back in time. It takes us to southeastern Turkey, near the borders with Iraq and Iran. It's a land where ancient and modern civilizations are stacked atop one another, layer after layer. In that region, there's a body of water called Lake Van. And in the lake is an island where many Armenians used to live. The island is also home to a landmark medieval Armenian cathedral, and yesterday, hundreds of worshipers gathered there for the first religious service in nearly a century. NPR's Peter Kenyon reports.
(Soundbite of bell ringing)
KENYON: Worshippers converged on the island by the hundreds, coming from Armenia, Europe, the U.S. and elsewhere to celebrate what most called a positive step, though hardly sufficient to overcome 95 years of bitter history between Turkish Muslims and Armenian Christians - history in which this area played an important part.
This 10th century cathedral was badly damaged during World War One-era fighting between Ottoman Turks and Armenians. Some historians say, overall, as many as 1.5 million Armenians were slain, and Armenia insists that Turkey acknowledge the Armenian genocide.
Turkey rejects that term, and argues that the death toll has been inflated. In 2007, the Turkish government reopened the renovated cathedral as a museum, which meant no religious services, until yesterday.
For those who did make the journey, it was a symbolically important moment, and one that resonated beyond the Armenian community. Cemil Demir is a Turk who has lived in Sweden for three decades. As an Assyrian Christian whose forebears suffered their own mass killings and forced relocations at the hands of the Ottoman Turks, he's followed closely Turkey's recent efforts to extend modest religious freedoms to its Christian minorities.
Mr. CEMIL DEMIR: (Through translator) It's a very important step for Turkey and Armenia. But it's especially important for Turkey in terms of democratization and moving closer to European standards.�
KENYON: For Turkey's Armenian minority, it was a day to recover memories. Dr. Ardas Akdag, head of surgery at one of Istanbul's Armenian hospitals, brought his son and a video camera along to collect sounds and images for those of his patients who couldn't make the trip themselves.
Dr. ARDAS AKDAG (Surgeon): (Through translator) Yes, of course, we're going to document as much as we can. We have 350 to 400 patients in our nursing home wing, and, you know, some of them probably used to live here. So we're definitely going to do whatever we can to share this with them.
KENYON: Some who stayed away were upset that the renovated cathedral's new cross hadn't been placed on the sandstone dome. Turkey blamed structural problems, but the critics were skeptical. Many of those who did come, however, prayed and wept at the cross on its platform outside.
This was Turkey's second effort to demonstrate religious tolerance recently. Last month, thousands of Greek Orthodox worshippers held the first service in 90 years at the Sumela Black Sea monastery.
Turkish analysts say the ruling AK party, facing elections next year, is not likely to make too many more such moves for fear of igniting a backlash among conservative Muslims and nationalist parties.�
Still, many of the Armenian Christians who gathered at this remote site so loaded with history said they never expected to reverse nearly a century of bitterness with a single prayer service, and they hope that next year's service will be a little bit bigger.
Peter Kenyon, NPR News, in Van, southeastern Turkey.
Unidentified Group: (Singing) Amen.
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