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Saturday, 3 December 2011

Armenians, Raised as Muslims, Baptized in Diyarbakir, Turkey

The following story was adapted from the Asbarez Newspaper:
A scene from the inaugural Mass at Diyarbakir church
DIYARBAKIR—A group of Armenians, raised as Sunni Muslims because their ancestors converted to Islam after the Armenian Genocide, were reportedly baptized in October of this year at the newly re-opened Surp Giragos Church, reported Hurriyet Daily News.
“I wish this church had always been open,” Gaffur Türkay, one of the group to be baptized, who also contributed to the restoration of the church, told Hurriyet. “It is unbelievable to be together here with people from all around the world with whom I share the same origins.”
Istanbul’s Deputy Patriarch Aram Ateshian was scheduled to officiate at the baptismal ceremony, which was held behind closed doors and was not open to the press. The newspaper reported that the names of those baptized would not be publicized due to security concerns.
Hurriyet also caught of with Turkish-born Archbishop Vicken Ayvazian, who was representing the Eastern US Diocese of the Armenian Church.
“We used to have over 2,600 churches and monasteries across Anatolia in the past. Unfortunately, only a handful of sanctuaries remain. My request from Turkey as a spiritual leader is for churches to be returned to the [Armenian] community, rather than reopening them for religious service as museums,” Archbishop Ayvazian told Hürriyet.
He also told Hurriyet that “there was a Genocide,” saying an acknowledgement of the fact can be a step toward the right direction.
Used as a command center for German officers during the First World War, the church was then used as an apparel depot by the state-owned Sümerbank until 1950. The church was then handed back to the Armenian community, following a long legal battle, reported Hurriyet.

Restoration of the Church...

Officials from Turkey, Armenia and the Armenian diaspora are expected to attend a Divine Liturgy to celebrate the church’s reopening, which is scheduled for later this year.
“After the restoration process, we are planning to draw faith tourists from around the world,” Surp Giragos Armenian Church Foundation Chairman Ergün Ayık recently told the Hürriyet Daily News & Economic Review.

The coming Armenian religious service marks a second for the region after the Divine Liturgy was held last September at the Surp Haç Armenian Church on Van’s Akdamar Island, drawing top Turkish officials, Turkish-Armenians and members of the diaspora.

Unlike Surp Haç, however, Surp Giragos will remain in the possession of the Armenian community after restoration is complete. The Istanbul Armenian Foundation coordinated the church’s restoration, drawing funds from diaspora Armenians, as well as Diyarbakır Metropolitan Municipality, which is expected to meet one-third of the restoration budget. The Turkish government, meanwhile, has promised to provide 25,000 Turkish Liras toward the church’s refurbishment.
The church is the first in Anatolia to be restored by Armenians, Ayık said, adding that they initially had problems with the country’s Culture Ministry.

“Right before the restoration we asked for support from the ministry but we were told to hand over the ownership of the church to the ministry in return for support. If we had accepted it, Surp Giragos would have opened as a museum like [Surp Haç] in Van,” the chairman said.
Culture Minister Ertuğrul Günay visited Diyarbakır to examine the restoration process at the church a few months ago, Ayık said. “He said he would provide a budget of 25,000 liras for the restoration, but we have not received it yet.”
Only family in Diyarbakır

According to some art historians, the church is the largest in the Middle East. The complex sprawls over 3,200 square meters and includes priests’ houses, chapels and a school. The church was seized by the German army in 1913 and served as their local headquarters until 1918, when it was converted into a fabric warehouse.

Ayık also said Surp Giragos had several unique architectural features. “Churches normally have one altar but Surp Giragos has seven altars. Its original roof was covered with the earth from around the region. We will do it again. The earth has been stripped of seeds to prevent the growth of plants. It should also be vented regularly, every year.
The chairman, whose family is originally from the southeastern province, said the church was handed over to the foundation by the General Directorate of Foundations in the 1950s and continued providing church services until 1980.
By the 1980s, there were only five Armenian families left in the province; now, however, there is just one.
“In accordance with the law of foundations, people had to live in the cities where they worked for foundations in Anatolia, but there was no Armenian society in the city. This is why the church was left alone, without a society, and looted by treasure hunters,” he said, adding that only the Hatay-Vakıflıköy, Kayseri and Diyarbakır churches survived today among the 2,000 churches and monasteries that once dotted Anatolia.

“These churches do not just belong to us; they are the cultural heritage of Turkey. We should preserve them,” Ayık said.

Ayık also said he had asked for help from diaspora Armenians living in different countries throughout the world.

“They ask why we are restoring a church that does not even have a society and whether it will be turned into a museum,” he said. “I have explained to them the importance of protecting these structures and have tried to persuade them that it will not become a museum [out of the control of Armenians].
The chairman, however, said the foundation planned to turn one of the chapels into a museum.
“We will display the lifestyle of Diyarbakır’s Armenians. There will also be concerts and exhibitions. In this way, the church will be able to finance itself,” Ayık said.

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