Wednesday, October 20, 2010

With or without a cross

The plane was just one of the dozen or more that flew to the eastern city of Van. It was early Saturday morning, and in the aircraft, a buzzing mixture of people: Turks, Kurds, Armenians, journalists, priests and academics.
The Armenians, the majority of the passengers, came from various corners of the world. Some had flown by night flights via İstanbul or Vienna, reaching here from Armenia proper. The air was of a meet and greet, and talk came easily.
I met an old friend, from the Armenian community in İstanbul. I had not seen her for a long time. She was visibly sad when she saw me. “He should have been with us, now,” she said. The missing person was our mutual friend, the patriarch of İstanbul, Mesrob II, who has been gravely ill, incommunicado for months. “It was his dream,” she said, with tears in her eyes.

Indeed. I had first heard about the miserable state of the Church of the Holy Cross, known as Akdamar, from him years and years ago. He wanted it to be restored and opened for prayers, as much as he wanted the tiny, historic Silk Road bridge between Kars province and Armenia rebuilt. Both as symbolic gestures, small in size, but huge in impact, and to accelerate reconciliation and peace.

Thanks to efforts from various sides and institutions, and after a series of hurdles, Van finally witnessed an historic event. A thousand years of history has seen again the light of today, and the Armenians, sharers of these lands with others, were in tears while praying on the island, after a horrid period of darkness, for memory and forgiveness. It was more than a little step, to say the least.

The people of Van had anticipated with great excitement the idea that people would visit their city in great numbers, taking the event as a pretext, and experience their well-known hospitality. Fewer than expected arrived, mainly due to problems with the preparation work concerning the cross.

Overall, the restoration attracted praise. The work conducted inside and outside the church was meticulous. However, when it came to the cross, it was a complicated story.

“Well, my brother, what can I say? It is a church, so it should have a cross, is that correct? Can a church be complete without it? No!” Zahir Kandaşoğlu, the dynamic chairman of Van Chamber of Trade and Commerce, and a prominent figure from one of the province’s most powerful Kurdish tribes, reacts with open frustration that the cross could not be placed on top of the building for the ceremony. He is the driving force for opening the Armenian border, only two-and-a-half hours away, and he tells me funny stories about how the local Kurds changed their minds in favor of restoring the Armenian heritage, realizing how important it is for Van to open up to the world. “Before, those Kurds out there would refuse to talk to you if you had mentioned these issues,” he said. “Now they are all for it.”

He visited Yerevan, some months ago, with a big delegation from Van. He says after the visit he became fiercely involved in “getting the cross installed on top.” He even paid for a builder from Armenia to do it, but there were problems with the “paperwork.” He complains that the authorities were not as eager as him.

We visit the governor as a tiny group of journalists. A soft-spoken man, he does not hide his opinion that the opening of the Armenian border is vital and urgent. What happened with the cross, then? Everything went smoothly with the restoration, and at a later stage, even with producing a cross, which was done under the supervision of the patriarchate in İstanbul, and sent to his office. But, at the last minute it was discovered that the restoration project, which involved an assortment of state, church, academia and institutions, local and abroad, did not include the part with the cross. It was not considered, nor mentioned. So, says the governor, when the building was restored, the construction was not strong enough to support the cross, which was no longer than 1.5 meters long and no heavier than some 50 kilos.

So, it lies there, at the building, unable to be unified with it. Not at the moment. It prevented some visitors from joining the ceremony -- the symbolism of the cross was strong enough for some of them to create pretexts not to do so, for some others a continuing suspicion prevailed about the genuine intentions of Ankara.

Meanwhile, thousands attended the moving ceremony, under unusually blue and beautiful skies, full of promises of a future of peace and reconciliation, and they did not seem to mind that not everything was in place. It was the notion of moving ahead, albeit with small steps, that mattered to them.

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