Commentary: Destination Akhtamar

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By Edmond Y. Azadian

The Turkish government has floated another trial balloon to wreak havoc among Armenians. In a short period of time Turkey made three calculated moves in succession to create chaos and bitter in-fighting among Armenians, savoring the fruit of its actions in view of the confusion created among Armenians.

After taking over the historic Armenian homeland and murdering 1.5 million indigenous Armenians, Turkey can easily manipulate the remnants of its victims who are at a loss to demonstrate national will and unanimity.

The first political balloon was the issue of the Protocols, which raised hopes among some Armenians and successfully duped the international community.

The second balloon was the election of a coadjuter patriarch in Istanbul. The Turks encouraged the formation of two committees, the Religious Council and the Election Committee, dividing the Istanbul Armenians into two opposing camps and then manipulating the “election” of Bishop Aram Atesian as coadjutor patriarch, an unprecedented position in the history of the Armenian Patriarchate. Altough this “election” is being challenged in the courts, Bishop Atesian is returning the favors, by dancing to the tunes of the Turkish authorities.

Now the third balloon is the proposed performance of Divine Liturgy at Holy Cross Armenian Cathedral on the island of Akhtamar in Van.

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A pliant Bishop Atesian has already agreed to do the bidding of the Turkish government and is ready to perform the Divine Liturgy on September 19, at a sanctuary, which is officially designated by the Turkish authorities as a museum.

By allowing a one-time service at the historic cathedral, the Turkish government makes its intentions too transparent, that it does not recognize the cathedral as a place of worship, it intends to use the occasion to pretend to have religious tolerance vis-à-vis the West in order to facilitate its entry into the European Union (EU), and also to use the moment to lure more tourists.

But above all to enjoy the view of Armenians fighting each other. In this perspective hangs the Shakespearian dilemma: to go or not to go.

Thus Armenians are divided in two opposing camps, arguing with each other, blaming each other, at times oblivious of Turkey’s intrigues.

Holy Echmiadzin has decided to send two high-ranking clergy to the September 19 service and a spokesman for His Holiness Karekin II, Fr. Vahram Melikian, has dismissed the calls for boycotting the event at an interview given to RFE/RL by stating: “We believe that if we are given the opportunity to cherish a shrine that had functioned for centuries but is devoid of prayer today for some reasons, we must use the event that single day in order to assert our rights to and ownership of the shrine with our participation.”

Opposing that view in the same news outlet, President Serge Sargisian’s ruling Republic Party spokesman Eduard Sharamazov denounced the Turkish government’s decision to reopen the church for a one-day religious ceremony as a publicity stunt and called it a “provocation” aimed at misleading the international community. Here we see a dissension between the authorities and Holy Echmiadzin, while all along, the opposition blames the Catholicos for walking in lock-step with the government.

There is further dissension between Echmiadzin and Antelias, which issued an appeal to boycott the event.

Interviewed on Armenia’s Public TV, the director of the Genocide Museum, Dr. Haig Demoyan, said he supports the Echmiadzin position, further elaborating that ceremony has to memorialize King Gagik Arzruni and the architect Manuel, who had erected the Holy Cross cathedral in the 10th century. He even mentioned that by the Treaty of Lausanne of 1923, the cathedral belongs to the Patriarchate of Istanbul. However, we may say ad nauseum that the shrine belongs to the Armenians, but the Turkish government maintains it as a state-owned museum. On August 17, the Turkish police chased out of the church a youth group from Armenia called Hay Aspet (Armenian Knight) for trying to pray in the sanctuary and lighting candles. The excuse was that the government is so caring (!) about the monument that the soot from the candles could smear the walls, never mind 2,000 other Armenian churches across modern Turkey, lie in ruins or have been converted into mosques or stables. This then means that the celebrant of the September 19 mass has to abide by the Turkish museum rules and refrain from lighting any candles.

While smiling to the outside world, the Turkish government is carrying on Nazi-style investigations in the Van area to find out if any of the host families who have offered accommodation to the pilgrims have Armenian ancestry and they are persecuting them.

Ironically, Archbishop Karekin Bekjian, Primate of the Armenian Church in Germany, is leading a group of European Armenians to the September 19 events, while he is at odds with the recent “election” in Istanbul. The archbishop has vehemently protested the underhanded Turkish government decision to place Bishop Atesian at the head of the Patriarchate and he retains his candidacy to the position.

Rumors were circulating that the Turkish government could open the border on September 19 for one day as a good-will gesture, but those hopes were dampened when Turkey decided not to open the border even for the NATO exercises to be held on September 11-17 in the Kotayk region of Armenia.

Foreign Minister Ahmet Davoutoglu has reversed his earlier position and announced that all equipment needed for the Turkish participants to the exercises will be shipped through Georgia. The same announcement has echoed also in Baku.

Therefore, we have a complete scenario for turmoil. The Turkish diplomats and statesmen are shrewd and they know what they are doing; they are taking calculated steps to gauge the Armenian reaction. They are cognizant that the day of reckoning will come and in order to be admitted into the EU, they have to make the ultimate “sacrifice” by recognizing the Armenian Genocide. In fact, all these actions represent dress rehearsals and the Turks seem to be very pleased at finding their enemies so fragmented.

Therefore, we do not need to wait for September 19 to find out who won and who lost. Turkey has already scored a victory by throwing the Armenian world into disarray.

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