AKDAMAR ISLAND, Turkey (Reuters) - The first Armenian Orthodox ceremony in nearly a century at a church in eastern Turkey was overshadowed on Sunday by a partial Armenian boycott because of the Turkish authorities’ refusal to place a cross on the roof of the building.
Nearly a thousand Armenian Orthodox worshippers out of the expected 5,000 people attended the service at the Church of the Holy Cross, which the government has hailed as a sign of growing religious tolerance in the predominantly Muslim country, which is a European Union candidate.
The church, which has been closed for services since the 1915 mass killings of Armenians at the hands of Ottoman troops, has become a symbol of Turkey’s troubled past with its Armenian minority and a painful process of reconciliation.
Turkey closed its border with Armenia in 1993 in solidarity with Muslim ally Azerbaijan over its war with Armenia, but in recent years the two nations have sought to normalize relations.
Last October there were a series of accords, but the process fell through after both sides accused the other of trying to rewrite the agreements and setting additional conditions.
Turkish authorities said a 200-kilogram cross made for the 1,000-year old church was too heavy for the roof, sparking outrage among some Armenians.
Earlier this year Turkey agreed to open the site, which sits on the island of Akdamar in Van Lake, for services once a year.
“I am so happy to be here. I want to thank the government for letting us be here at this historic moment,” one elderly woman, who identified herself as part of the Armenian community in Turkey told Turkish television.
The church was opened officially as a museum in 2007 following a $1.5 million restoration by the government.
Many people canceled plans to make the 20-hour bus trip from Armenia, through Georgia, after news that the cross would be placed at the door of the church.
Armenia, backed by many historians and world parliaments, says some 1.5 million Armenians died during the upheavals that accompanied World War I and labels the events as genocide.
Ankara rejects the term genocide and says large numbers of both Christian Armenians and Muslim Turks were killed.
In Armenia, hundreds attended an alternative religious service held at the Armenian Genocide Memorial on a hill overlooking the capital, Yerevan. They denounced the service on Lake Van as a publicity stunt.
The Armenian Church in Yerevan had planned to send two bishops to the Lake Van service but reversed the decision in protest at the failure to mount a cross on the church.
Writing by Thomas Grove, additional reporting by Hasmik Mkrtchyan; Editing by Matthew Jones