New Jersey Benefit for St. Giragos Church of Dikranagerd

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By Aram Arkun
Mirror-Spectator Staff

NEW MILFORD, N.J. — Some 360 Armenians from the greater New York metropolitan area came together on May 14 at the Hovnanian Banquet Hall here to raise funds for the restoration of Saint Giragos Church in Dikranagerd (Diyarbakir), Turkey. This is the first church in the interior of Turkey to be restored by Armenians. Speakers came from Turkey, Los Angeles and other parts of the United States to support this unusual effort which will culminate this fall in the reopening of the church with the celebration of the Divine Liturgy in Armenian.

Archbishop Khajag Barsamian, Primate of the Diocese of the Armenian Church of America (Eastern), explained to those present that though most openly Armenian families have left the Dikranagerd area, “I, and I am sure many of you, believe that we must renovate our historical churches so that they remain standing and testify to the fact that Armenians lived and worked, and created Armenian establishments in those cities and regions, so that Armenian life continues.” He fervently then declared to great applause, “And why not…we believe that in the future Armenian Christians can still live on those historical lands, because those lands are Armenian lands.”

Vartkes Ergun Ayik was the main speaker. Chairman of the St. Giragos Church Parish Council, Ayik began the renovation project three years ago. He has visited the United States, Canada and Europe at his own expense to raise money for the church. Ayik explained that Saint Giragos, with its seven altars, was the largest Armenian Church in the Middle East. Although according to some sources it was built in the early 16th century, a stone bearing the date of 1367 was found among the ruins during the renovations. The church was renovated several times in the 19th century, and finally was built out of stone. It included a small chapel, guest house, school, kitchen and other structures around the church. It had a tall bell tower which was bombarded in 1915 and toppled by Ottoman cannon fire. The church was converted into a government warehouse sometime in the late 1950s, and Sümerbank used the property. It was only taken back in 1962 by the Patriarchate through the efforts of the local Dikranagerd-Armenian community. After 1980, however, practically no Armenians were left living in the city.

In 2007, after several visits Ayik noticed that the local situation had changed. New officials in Diyarbakir were willing to cooperate. The municipality promised to pay one-third of all restoration costs, and architects and specialists joined the efforts. Ayik said that they preferred not to ask for any financial support from Armenians in Turkey or abroad until construction began. Only a few Armenians believed in the success of this project, but by now 60 percent of the work has been completed. The construction cost of the buildings and bell tower together altogether is roughly $3 million. So far, the municipality has provided $660,000, and $675,000 has been collected from donations in Turkey. With undeniable evidence of the viability of the reconstruction in hand, Ayik felt the time had come to ask support from Armenians abroad.

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Ayik pointed out that the St. Giragos Foundation has some rental income. Furthermore, some important pieces of property belonging to the church are at present occupied by government offices, schools and apartments. Court cases have been initiated to recover these properties, but will take some time. In the program booklet for the evening benefit Ayik is quoted as saying that Ertugrul Gunay, Turkish minister of culture and education, visited Diyarbakir several months ago to see the restoration and promised that the state would provide the equivalent of $16,000 in funds as a donation, but the St. Giragos Foundation is still awaiting these funds.

St. Giragos will differ from other Armenian churches like that of Akhtamar which the Turkish government renovated as a museum. The Patriarchate will keep St. Giragos open every day, and the Divine Liturgy can be held there any time without government permission. Cultural activities will also be organized there.

Senior members of the East Coast St. Giragos Church Restoration Committee Hagop Uzatmaciyan and Bayar Karakashian joined Archbishop Aram Ateshian, vicar general of the Armenian Patriarchate of Istanbul, to present a gold medal to Ayik in gratitude for his efforts. Dikran the Great is pictured on one side of the medal, and Mount Ararat on its obverse. The medal was specially created here in the US.

Ateshian, who came especially for the St. Giragos fundraising efforts to the United States, encouraged the audience to give donations for this worthy project. He gave a brief synopsis of the difficult efforts to create a responsible Parish Council for the St. Giragos Church and stressed that it was important to have a church in Diyarbakir as proof of Armenian existence there. He noted that though only two openly Armenian families are left; there are some 70 Armenian families who have converted to Islam out of pressure or who hide their Armenian identity. Ateshian’s own sister’s children are among them. The restoration of the church gives these Armenians strength to recover their ancestral identity and faith, and so some of his relatives have agreed to be baptized on the day the church is reopened.

Archbishop Viken Aykazian, diocesan legate in Washington, DC, also spoke in favor of the project and stated that the time for donations was now. Armenians had to invest in their own heritage. Ateshian pointed out that the three archbishops present that evening had all come from the provinces to become students together in Istanbul in the Holy Cross Tbrevank or seminary. They then went to Jerusalem to continue their religious education and rose in the ranks of the hierarchy.

Author and journalist Osman Köker, visiting the US from Turkey to present his book, Armenians in Turkey 100 Years Ago, showed the audience slides on the Armenian presence in the Ottoman Empire as well as specifically some pictures of Diyarbakir. He is preparing a special exhibition on the Armenians of Dikranagerd from the same Orlando Calumeno collection he used for his book, and will inaugurate his exhibition when St. Giragos is opened this fall. Köker’s work has been important in providing information on Armenians to contemporary Turkish society.

The New Jersey benefit included in the audience the Assyrian Orthodox Church Parish Council from Paramus. Many Assyrians lived in the Diyarbakir area. There were also a number of personalities from various parts of the US present, including representatives of the various Armenian political parties, as well as Ambassador Garen Nazarian, permanent representative of the Republic of Armenia to the United Nations. Panos Titizian, a veteran member of the Armenian Democratic Liberal Party from California, discussed contemporary Turkish politics concerning the Armenians as part of a patriotic speech in Armenian, while Armenian Weekly editor Khatchig Mouradian briefly spoke in encouragement of the project.

The master of ceremonies for the evening was Hirant Gulian, who is one of the active leaders of the restoration committee for the Eastern US. He exclaimed that “tonight, everybody is Dikranagerdtsi [originating from Dikranagerd].” Indeed, the food that everybody enjoyed that evening was typical of the region and was prepared by Suren Kilerciyan, also a committee member, while the Onnik Dinkjian band played Armenian and regional music. Oudist Zaven Uzatmaciyan of Dikranagerd sang, and a Dikranagerd halay dance was led by Bayar Karakashian and his friends.

At the entrance to the hall, an embroidered curtain from St. Giragos, lent by Virginia Clark, was on display along with a picture of the St. Giragos bell tower. When Clark and her husband visited St. Giragos in 1995, the latter found the curtain buried in the earth and somehow managed to bring it back to the US.

Fundraising for the effort continued a week later in Toronto. Among the personal donations made so far are 50 crosses made of gold alloy for each of the 38 columns in St. Giragos Church and for the walls, which is being given by Hirant Gulian. He and a group from the East Coast will visit the church in June prior to the formal opening, and the Divine Liturgy will be conducted there.

Contributions towards the reconstruction of St. Giragos may be made out to the Diocese of the Armenian Church and sent to Zakar Dikme (575 Stewart St., Ridgefield, NJ 07657), with the notation “Dikranagerd Church.”

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