(Photos: The Church of the Holy Cross, Akdamar Island, 27 June 2010/Umit Bektas)
Swallows dart around the dome of the 10th century Armenian church rising from Akdamar Island set amid the turquoise waters of Lake Van. Tombstones with ancient Christian inscriptions and crosses lie scattered among the weeds in the garden, where day-trippers picnic in the shade of almond trees and sunbathe after a swim.
The serenity of the scene belies a traumatic past that haunts Turkey and Armenia to this day. The Church of the Holy Cross, which is now a state museum, has become a symbol of a tortuous reconciliation process as Turkey prepares to open the site on Sept. 19 for a one-day religious service that could become an annual event.
“This church is very important for Armenians, not only in Turkey, but across the world,” said Archbishop Aram Ateshian, a spiritual leader from Turkey’s surviving Armenian community. “For decades, we could not say mass or have a religious service because it was forbidden by the government.”
Often criticised in the West for its treatment of Christian minorities, Ankara has promoted the mass as proof of commitment to tolerance. Critics say the one-day service is a public relations campaign to improve EU candidate’s Turkey’s image.