“To find something that is lost is always a happy occasion!” So said Patriarch Sahak II Maşalyan of the Armenian Patriarchate of Constantinople, during his sermon at the first Divine Liturgy to be celebrated at the Holy Trinity Armenian Apostolic Church in Malatya, Turkey, in over one hundred years. Reconstructed through joint efforts of the “Malatya Hayırsever Ermeniler Kültür ve Dayanışma Derneği” (Malatya Armenian Culture and Solidarity Philanthropic Association, known as “HayDer”) and the Malatya Municipality, the reconsecration of the Սուրբ Երրորդութիւն/Surp Yerrortutiun (Holy Trinity) Church on Saturday, August 28, and the celebration of the Divine Liturgy the day after was a momentous, historic, and, indeed, happy occasion. Patriarch Sahak II deftly connected Christ’s famous parables from Luke 15 and the weekend’s “Feast of the Finding of the Holy Belt of Saint Mary” with the historic occasion. He emphasized the monumental event of restoring an Armenian Apostolic Church that had been abandoned during the Armenian Genocide of 1915 and left to ruin not only being renovated by a Turkish municipality, but again hosting Armenian Christian liturgical life. Joy at recovering something lost and the promise of new life, the themes of the Lukan parables, were palpable in the videos and news from the weekend.
Malatya, an ancient central Anatolian city known historically as Melitene, had a notable Armenian presence since at least the time it served as a Roman provincial capital. While the church, known colloquially in Turkish as Taşhoran, was left to ruin after the 1915 Genocide, Malatya was one of the few urban centers that maintained an Armenian presence throughout the twentieth century. Today, Malatya is famous among Armenians as the birthplace of Hrant Dink, the journalist and intellectual who founded the influential paper Agos and was assassinated outside of its offices in 2007. Several of the articles about the reconsecration mention the proximity of the church to the neighborhood where Hrant Dink was born.
The church of Hagia Sophia was the preeminent monument of Christian architecture and an active church for almost a millennium until the conquest of Constantinople in 1453, when the clergy and people were slaughtered as they celebrated their last Liturgy. Hagia Sophia was used as a mosque for Muslim prayers until 1934, when the new secular leadership of the Turkish state declared it a museum. Hagia Sophia was preserved as a tourist site, and no prayers of any kind were allowed. However, earlier this year, the Turkish government under the leadership of President Erdogan, restarted Muslim prayers. Hagia Sophia became a mosque again.
For the current president of Turkey and his supporters, the meaning of this event is clear: the ascendancy, supremacy, and inevitable victory of Islam. For Orthodox Christians—and for all Christians who are aware of it—the event is a source of anguish. These two meanings are clear and incompatible.
Note: Because of the urgency of the current situation in Armenia and Azerbaijan and the importance of providing reliable background information, the following essay is an exception toour typical length and op-ed format and includes an extensive excerpt from an academic journal article.
Since Sunday, September 27, Azerbaijan, with support from its Turkic big brother Turkey—two autocratic totalitarian states—has launched attacks on its neighboring countries, the Republics of Armenia and Artsakh—two fledgling democracies in the Caucasus. Neither Azerbaijan nor Turkey has shown regard for human life, let alone such niceties as historical truth, or, for that matter, international law. Artsakh (called Nagorno Karabakh in Soviet times) is part of the remaining territory of the Armenian highlands, after the Armenian people’s vast territorial losses following the 1915 Armenian Genocide. The current conflict is not only a fight for the survival of the Armenian people—75% of whom Ottoman Turkey eliminated in the 1915 Genocide—but an information war. It should not be that way.
In 2016, I received a call from our local FBI office. The agent notified me that my name and my home address were circulating on jihadi websites, along with those of certain U.S. military personnel, calling upon homegrown terrorists and ISIS supporters to harm us. It was unclear to the FBI agent why my name was circulating on these websites, as they appeared to be related to the crisis in Syria. I have not served in the U.S. military. I had zero involvement in the Syrian crisis, other than calling my U.S. representatives years earlier to warn them that Turkey was funding Syrian “rebels” who were aligned with al-Qaeda. What I was “guilty” of—I surmise—was writing articles about Turkey’s denial of the Armenian Genocide and the destruction of Armenian cultural heritage by Turkey and later Azerbaijan, fundraising for humanitarian efforts in Artsakh (Nagorno Karabakh), and my most recent trip to Artsakh as part of a fact-finding mission regarding several medieval Armenian monasteries that Azerbaijan (a majority Muslim population) was claiming as their own cultural heritage.
I categorically refuse to pay an entrance fee for a church, out of principle. When I was in Bratislava, and the Catholic cathedral charged a very small fee, I did not enter. When I returned to the wonderful Cathedral Church in Trogir, Croatia, two years ago, it was selling entrance tickets—so I relied on my memories. I once had the privilege of a private tour to the Sistine Chapel; I would not have paid to see it. In my view, there is a fundamental difference between a house of prayer which must be open to everybody, and a museum which can charge entrance fees.
However, the boundaries between churches and museums are frequently blurry. One does not pay to enter St. Peter’s Cathedral in Rome, but the mere fact that they have to have a person standing next to the entrance to bar visitors with dogs, ice cream cones, shorts, or bathing attire shows that many people do not regard it as a place for prayer, meditation, and adoration of God, but rather as a must-see during their visit to Rome. In St. Petersburg, St. Isaac’s Cathedral was supposed to be transferred to the Russian Orthodox Church in 2017, but public outcry kept it a museum, with only occasional services. Now, a woman in trousers and her head uncovered can enter, walk around, and look closely at the paintings on the iconostasis—unless she enters the side nave dedicated to church use. Then, most likely an elderly woman will come and reproach her for not being properly dressed. I like the solution I saw in Krakow, Poland: the back part of St. Mary’s Basilica can be entered for prayer free of charge; tourists who want a better look at the famous altar woodwork must pay at another entrance.