Restoring Armenian Heritage in Turkey: A Failed Story of Hope

By Tugba Tanyeri-Erdemir
Submitted to Session P4934 (From Hope to Disappointment: The Failure of Reconciliation Processes in Turkey, 2017 Annual Meeting
LCD Projector without Audio;
Religious heritage sites play a key role in both the escalation of intercommunal conflict and facilitation of reconciliation. By focusing on two Armenian churches in Turkey, Akhtamar in Van and Surp Giragos in Diyarbak?r, I examine how amend-making attempts in and around these religious heritage sites failed.

Akhtamar and Surp Giragos churches went through extensive restorations, by the Turkish Ministry of Culture and by the Armenian Surp Giragos Pious Foundation, respectively. Following their restoration, both churches came into service in 2011 but with significantly different functions. Akhtamar reopened as a museum, and the Apostolic Armenian Church was allowed to host a liturgy on a designated day each September until 2015. This annual event attracted numerous Armenians from different parts of Turkey, and the world, as well as locals and curious tourists. On any other day, the site can be visited as a museum. By contrast, Surp Giragos was restored as a worship hall in which rituals can be held around the year. Although very few Armenians currently reside in Diyarbak?r, the church held liturgies, weddings and baptisms, which were attended by a diverse group, including local Muslims, both Kurdish and Turkish, as well as descendants of Armenians from the region.

The Easter liturgy held at the church in April 2015 was a spectacle of reconciliation. Diyarbakir’s historic Sur district, where Surp Giragos is located, however became an active warzone in September 2015 following an outbreak of violence between the outlawed Kurdistan Workers’ Party (PKK) and the Turkish security forces. The six-month-long armed struggle claimed many lives and caused massive damage to heritage sites. In April 2016, the Turkish government announced its decision to expropriate the Sur district as part of an urban renewal program, which was perceived by skeptics as gentrification and war profiteering. Surp Giragos Church was also part of the expropriated properties, raising concerns as to the future status of these religious minority sites. Likewise, the annual liturgies performed at Akhtamar, which were once the symbols of hope for coexistence in Turkey, were cancelled in 2015 and 2016 due to security concerns in the region.

In this paper, I analyze the dramatic reversal of fortunes of Akhtamar and Surp Giragos churches, where hope for reconciliation and amend-making was eclipsed by policy shortcomings and the ensuing escalation of violence.