AN, Turkey (Anatolian News Agency)–Residents of the eastern Turkish province of Van will host Armenians arriving in the city for a worship service being conducted on September 19 at the newly renovated Holy Cross Church on the island of Akhtamar, local news outlets reported.
The number of Armenian guests in the province, once the cradle of Armenian civilization, is anticipated to be higher than the total capacity of hotels and guesthouses.
Turkish authorities announced earlier that the historic Armenian Church on Akhamar Island would be opened to religious worship for a single day this year, as a symbolic gesture to the Armenian community around the world, as part of Turkey’s purported efforts to normalize relations with Armenia.
So far, 4,000 families in the region have joined a local campaign to host the visiting Armenians. Turkish residents of Van lived together with the indigenous Armenian population of the province until the Armenian Genocide of 1915, in which they were massacred or deported.
The initiative to open the church for a one-day service came from the Van Governor’s Office, and approval came from the Culture and Tourism Minister Ertugrul Gunay. It is the first time since the Armenian Genocide that the church is being opened for a worship service. According to local officials, thousands of Armenians are expected to visit the church on the occasion.
The 1,100-year-old Holy Cross Church was re-opened as a museum in 2007 at a ceremony featuring officials from Armenia and Turkey after being restored by the Turkish government. The opening, shrouded in controversy, caused an uproar in Turkey’s Armenian community, angered by the fact that Turkish officials had reopened the church without its cross. The Armenian Patriarchate appealed to the state commission on historic monuments to include a cross and a bell in the belfry, but the request was denied. The commission eventually decided that a cross would be erected on the church on the day of a planned pilgrimage to the site.