Several issues are at stake in memorialization efforts involving the Armenians. One is the prospect of the Turkish state acknowledging the Armenian presence and halting the denial policy that has worked to erase the Armenian past for almost a century. In this regard, one of the main contributions of the project was that Turkey welcomed the Armenians for the first time. The attendance of state officials from the Armenian Republic at the dedication ceremony had a positive impact on relations between Armenia and Turkey. Moreover, the presence of Armenians from various countries at the first religious service held in Akhtamar on September 19, 2010, also meant the return of Armenians to their homeland not as tourists, but in an environment where their identity was officially recognized. At the same time, a local newspaper in Van started a campaign to host Armenians coming to the city for the first sacrament. This campaign lasted for three months, and 2,000 families in Van agreed to host Armenians coming for the service. This campaign began the process of creating social and cultural links between Armenians, Turks and Kurds, and provided the opportunity to start a process of dialogue among these communities outside of formal official or diplomatic channels.
The Holy Cross (Akhtamar) Cathedral in Van was built in 915-921 by the order of King I. Gagik, to shelter a piece of the True Cross that is told to be brought to whereabouts of Van in the 7th century after being smuggled from Jerusalem to Iran. The cathedral is considered to be one of the most valuable examples of medieval Armenian architecture. This church is located on the island of Akhtamar, 45 kilometers from the center of Van, and is one the richest historical constructions in Mesopotamia. The centuries-old presence of the church and the surrounding Armenian populations continued until the early 20th century. The history of the church drastically changed during the armed conflict that began among Armenians and Muslims before WWI in Van. In 1915, the Armenian genocide took place, causing the death of more than a million Armenians. The genocide continues to be denied by the Turkish state. In the course of the massacres, the monks of Akhtamar were killed by Muslims. Thus in addition to its historical and religious value, in the collective memory of Armenians, the church is also perceived as a place where atrocities were committed against their people. Like other Armenian properties in the region, the Akhtamar Church was extensively vandalized after the genocide by local people looking for valuables they believed the Armenians had hidden and left behind in hopes of coming back. Following the deportation and murder of the Armenians, a cultural genocide took place, targeting the abandoned properties of non-Muslims in Anatolia. Although Turkey became a dual party system in 1950, the Democrat Party (DP) that took power did not alter the policies of the Turkish state towards non-Muslim populations. In 1951, a decision was adopted by the DP government that would have led to the demolition of a majority of the abandoned historical properties in Turkey. The famous novelist Yasar Kemal, at the time merely a journalist, succeeded in preventing this by using his networks and the media. In subsequent decades, the church remained abandoned in the absence of an Armenian community in the region.
Beginning in the early 1990s, news began to emerge in the media that the Holy Cross Cathedral was in danger of collapse, along with announcements about would-be restorations the following year. But these promises were never fulfilled, here as elsewhere, despite the state’s awareness of the loss of Armenian cultural property in Anatolia. Instead, a music hall was built next to the Cathedral and remained open until the World Council of Churches intervened in 1992.
Finally, in 2002, a group of writers and NGO activists started a campaign titled “The Project to Save Akhtamar” (Ahtamar’ı Kurtarma Projesi), aimed at the restoration of the church. Ten thousand signatures were collected to spread awareness of the abandonment of the church and ask for urgent action to save it; they were delivered to the Turkish embassy in France, a country with a vocal Armenian diaspora community. The Istanbul Chamber of Commerce responded to these calls by voicing concerns about protecting the church as a tourism site and announced that it was reserving a fund of one million dollars for the restoration
Turkey and Armenia were unable to establish solid political, economic and social links following the establishment of an independent Armenian state in 1990, mainly because of Turkey’s unwillingness to recognize the Armenian genocide. But when the Justice and Development Party (AKP) came to power in Turkey in 2002, it proposed a foreign policy approach based on “zero problems” with its neighbors. As a result, a negotiation process between the two countries began, and restoration of the Holy Cross Cathedral became one of the steps to improve relations with Armenia. The dedication ceremony for the restored church took place on March 29, 2007 in the presence of the Armenian Patriarch of Turkey, the Armenian Minister of Culture, and ambassadors from 30 countries, in addition to Turkish ministers. Although a protocol between Armenia and Turkey was signed in October 2009 to enhance political, economic and social relations between the two countries, it never went into effect. Nevertheless, the first sacrament took place in Akhtamar on September 19, 2010, after which the cross that was missing at the top of the church was installed.
The main purpose of this memorialization project for the Turkish government was to make positive developments possible in its relationship with Armenia. The Armenian state had a similar purpose, in addition to its desire to preserve the Armenian cultural legacy in Turkey. Yet the process that led to the restoration of an old Armenian church that had been abandoned for decades was more than a mere diplomatic maneuver. Especially for the Armenian community, this project signifies a degree of normalization, as well as recognition of their past in Turkey and their freedom to pray in the homeland from which they were forcibly deported. Therefore, it is more than merely a restoration project in the physical sense for Armenians in Turkey and abroad; it also means a partial recognition of their past by the Turkish state.
Although the second phase of the church’s restoration started in April 2013, and a budget of 1,200,000 TL has already been allocated for this purpose, this does not mean that all the problems surrounding this memorialization project will disappear. One of the crucial challenges facing the survival of the Akhtamar Church is the attitude of the Ministry of Culture and Tourism, which dictates that the church can be used for religious purposes only one day per year, to be determined by the Turkish state. This decision was publicized in December 2009, and there have been no changes in this rule since. Another challenge related to the Turkish state is its recognition of the Holy Cross Cathedral not as a religious site but as a museum, which means it does not officially recognize it as an Armenian church. On the other hand, Armenians demand that the Turkish state acknowledge their past in full and consider this a collective right, not an issue for political bargaining. Furthermore, when speaking of the Holy Cross Cathedral, the Turkish government uses the name “Akdamar” Church, a Turkish word, rather than the name “Ahtamar,” which is the Armenian counterpart of the same word. Another challenge facing memorialization projects of this kind is the presence of ultra-nationalists in Turkey. The leader of the Nationalist Action Party, a nationalist political party, organized a Friday prayer service in Kars to protest the first religious ceremony taking place in Akhtamar. Such racist initiatives aim to discourage the government and civil society in Turkey from further memorialization work and to spread fear among Armenian communities if they pursue demands for their collective rights.