Armenians gather for landmark mass in Turkey

Hundreds of Armenians gathered Sunday for their first mass in nearly a century at a historic church in eastern Turkey after Ankara opened it for prayers as a good will gesture.

Boats ferried worshippers to the rocky Akdamar island -- Akhtamar in Armenian -- in Lake Van, where the 10th-century Church of the Holy Cross stands as a rare reminder of a community that fell victim to mass killings by Ottoman Turks during World War I.

Turkey gave permission for the mass -- the first here in 95 years -- hoping it will help reconciliation with Armenia, but its failure to install a cross on the church dome has sparked controversy.

The two-metre-tall (six-foot) cross stood on a wooden pedestal at the church entrance, to be hoisted to the dome later. Officials blamed the delay on red tape restricting any work on the listed historical monument, which is officially a museum.

Scores of worshippers posed for pictures next to the cross as others prayed and lit candles outside the edifice ahead of the mass.

"Ten years ago, I would not have dreamed of a mass at Akhtamar," Archbishop Aram Ateshian, the acting spiritual head of Turkey's tiny Armenian minority who was to lead the mass, told the Hurriyet newspaper.

"Ten years ago, you would not have been able to speak so freely, neither about the genocide nor human rights," he said.

Only a handful of worshippers would be able to attend the mass inside the tiny church. Most people were to be seated in plastic chairs set up outside the edifice and watch the ceremony on a giant screen.

The majority of the faithful arriving for the service were Turkish Armenians, with a few coming from neighbouring Armenia and the United States.

The cross controversy has sparked criticism in Armenia that the mass is a Turkish public-relations stunt and led to calls for a boycott.

The Armenian Apostolic Church has reversed a decision to send two high-ranking representatives to the mass.

The row underscores the deep mistrust between the two neighbours over their bloody past marked by Armenian claims that 1.5 million of their kin perished in a genocide campaign between 1915-1917.

Van province and much of eastern Turkey was home to a large Armenian community until 1915 when they became the target of massacres and deportations as the Ottoman empire fell apart during World War I.

Turkey rejects the genocide label and claims the victim numbers are grossly inflated.

Turkey's surviving Armenian minority, numbering some 70,000 people, is concentrated in Istanbul, where they run their own churches.

Last year, Turkey and Armenia signed landmark deals to establish diplomatic ties and reopen their border, closed for more than a decade. But the process faltered amid mutual recriminations of insincerity and in April Armenia announced it has halted the ratification process of the deals.

Source: AFP

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