By CHRISTOPHER TORCHIA, Associated Press Writer 14 minutes ago
AKDAMAR ISLAND, Turkey - An ancient Armenian church, perched on a rocky island in a vast lake, has become a modern symbol of the divisions and fitful efforts at reconciliation between Turks and Armenians whose history of bloodshed drives their troubled relationship.
Next week, the church will showcase Turkey‘s tentative steps to improving ties with its ethnic Armenian minority, as well as neighboring Armenia. Turkey completed a $1.5 million restoration of the sandstone building, and invited Armenian officials to a ceremony there on March 29 to mark what Turkey‘s prime minister, Recep Tayyip Erdogan, has called a "positive" message.
"A positive sign and a move on the part of Turkey ... would be the opening of the border with Armenia and establishment of diplomatic relations," the news agency Armenpress quoted Foreign Minister Vartan Oskanian as saying this week. He said the Armenian delegation could reach the church by land in just a few hours if the border were open, but instead will have to fly to Istanbul, and then take another flight back toward the Armenian border.
Hrant Dink, the ethnic Armenian journalist murdered in Istanbul in January, was apparently targeted by nationalists for his commentaries on minority rights and free expression.
The government has yet to respond, but placement of a cross could be sensitive for Erdogan, who plans to attend the inauguration ceremony, and his Islamic-rooted government. The symbolism could upset some Muslims, and Turkey‘s powerful military, might regard it as a concession to Armenia and the Armenian diaspora.
"It runs the risk of being viewed as an antiquity, instead of a living symbol of Armenian culture and spiritual life," said Phillips, executive director of The Elie Wiesel Foundation for Humanity in New York.
"Akdamar is an extroverted church," said Zakarya Mildanoglu, an ethnic Armenian architect who helped restore it. "It doesn‘t hide its face."
Akdamar, called the Church of Surp Khach, or Holy Cross, was inaugurated in A.D. 921. Written records say the church was near a harbor and a palace on the island on Lake Van, but only the church survived.
"We are not guilty of anything," said Mehmet Sandir, associate chairman of the Nationalist Movement Party. "Why should we be making gestures ?"
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