Sassounian: Turkish Propaganda Campaign, Part II: Exploiting Akhtamar Church Once Again

Sassounian: Turkish Propaganda Campaign, Part II: Exploiting Akhtamar Church Once Again

Readers may recall that the Turkish government embarked on a worldwide publicity stunt in 2007 when it renovated and reopened as a museum the Armenian Holy Cross Church on Akhtamar Island in Lake Van.

At the time, Turkey had gone to great lengths to lure Armenians from around the world to the opening ceremonies. Turkish officials did not conceal that their real purpose was to exploit this event for propaganda purposes. Even before the “Holy Cross Museum” was inaugurated, a Turkish Parliamentary delegation had arrived in Washington with a bulky photo album. Mehmet Dulger, then-chairman of the parliament’s Foreign Affairs Commission, relayed the following message to Members of the U.S. Congress: “See, the Turks, whom you accuse of genocide, have renovated an Armenian Church with taxes collected from Turks. And those photos are the evidence.” The photo album was distributed worldwide to all organizations advocating “Armenian Genocide claims,” according to the Turkish newspaper Zaman. Furthermore, Turkey invited to the opening of the “Holy Cross Museum” the culture ministers of all countries that had adopted or were considering to adopt resolutions recognizing the Armenian Genocide.

In my column of March 22, 2007, I had asked that the Turkish government to designate Holy Cross, not as a museum, but a church with a cross on its dome, and place it under the jurisdiction of the Armenian Patriarchate in Turkey. If not, I had urged Armenians to boycott the opening ceremonies in order to avoid being used as tools for Turkey’s campaign of genocide denial. In the end, the Turkish propaganda effort failed, as only a handful of Armenians from overseas traveled to Lake Van to attend the event.

Now that Turkish officials have grudgingly allowed church services to be performed for one day only—on Sept. 19, 2010—and a cross to be placed on the dome of this 10th-century church, they have embarked on Part II of their publicity campaign: All Turkish Embassies and Consulates worldwide have been instructed to invite large numbers of Armenians to this one-time church service in order to accomplish three objectives: 1) earn millions of dollars in revenue from 5,000 tourists expected on Sept. 19 and another million visitors during the next year; 2) secure concessions from Armenians in return for Ankara’s “magnanimous gesture”; and 3) score propaganda points with Europeans and Americans by presenting the image of a tolerant Turkish society.

Hakan Tekin, Turkey’s energetic consul general in Los Angeles, told Today’s Zaman that California’s “one million Armenians” are looking forward to take part in the upcoming religious worship. To impress his bosses in Ankara, Tekin proudly announced that the “one-day church service” has caused “a stir” among the Armenian community in Los Angeles—no doubt the result of his hard work! He expressed the wish that Armenia would take “reciprocal steps” in return for Turkey’s “constructive policy.” Tekin also hoped that such a “normalization process” would have a significant impact on Turkey’s relations with the Armenian Diaspora, “especially with Armenians living in California who are hard-liners.”

In sparing no efforts to publicize the planned “one-day worship,” the Turkish government has undertaken the following preparations:

  • Special solar panels are being installed on Akhtamar Island, so that tourists can visit the Holy Cross Church by day and night.
  • Since hotels are supposedly fully booked, plans are being made to house tourists in school dormitories and private homes in Van.
  • Large video screens are to be placed outside the church so the thousands of expected visitors can follow the services, as the building can only accommodate 50 worshipers.
  • A 90-page guidebook will be published in the Armenian language.
  • A 10-day Turkish-Armenian Cultural Festival is being planned in Van.
  • The border may be opened for a few days, so that tourists can directly travel from Armenia to Van, rather than spend a dozen hours to get there via Georgia, according to the president of Van’s Chamber of Commerce.

I urge all Armenians to boycott this new propaganda ploy, unless Turkish officials take the following steps:

  • Officially designate Holy Cross as a church, not a museum, opening it for year-round worship services, rather than for one day only.
  • Place the church under the jurisdiction of the Armenian Patriarchate of Turkey, not the Ministry of Tourism.
  • Allow Divine Liturgy to be celebrated regularly, after Holy Cross Church is properly consecrated in accordance with Armenian religious rites.

Archbishop Aram Ateshian, Locum Tenens of the Armenian Patriarchate in Istanbul, is the appropriate religious official to present these demands to the Turkish authorities, without whose participation they would be unable to carry out the Sept. 19 church services and propaganda campaign. It is doubtful, however, that such demands will be met by the Turkish government, given its traditional policy of callous disregard for the rights of the Armenian community in Turkey.

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