DİYARBAKIR – Hürriyet Daily News
A group of Armenians, raised as Sunni Muslims, will be baptized today as Armenian Orthodox christians at the historic St. Giragos (Surp Giragos) Armenian Church in Turkey’s southeastern province of Diyarbakır.
The church, which was reopened on Oct. 22 following two years of restoration work, will host the baptism ceremony for dozens of Sunni Muslims of Armenian origin, whose ancestors converted to Islam after the 1915 killings in the Ottoman era.
Among those to be baptized is Gaffur Türkay, who also contributed to the restoration of the church. Türkay was going through emotional fluctuations, he told the Hürriyet Daily News.
“I wish this church had always been open,” he said. “It is unbelievable to be together here with people from all around the world with whom I share the same origins.”
“We have been ostracized by both Sunni Muslims and Armenians,” said Behçet Avcı, also known as Garod Sasunyan, who will also be baptized. “It is a very emotional moment for me and I’m a bit upset, because unfortunately we do not belong to either side.”
The baptism ceremony, which will be closed to the press and outside visitors, will be held today at the St. Giragos Armenian Church and will be led by Deputy Patriarch Archbishop Aram Ateşyan. The names of those to be baptized will not be revealed for security reasons.
A religious service was held yesterday at the church, one day after it was re-opened following the completion of the restoration work.
Among the participants in yesterday’s service were guests from Armenia and the United States, including former foreign minister of Armenia and the leader of Armenia’s Heritage Party, Raffi Hovhannesian, U.S. Ambassador to Turkey Francis Ricciardione and Archbishop Vicken Ayvazian, diocese of the Armenian Orthodox Church of America.
Other participants at the ceremony included Dositheos Anagnostopulos, spokesperson for the Istanbul-based Greek Orthodox Patriarchate, Yusuf Çetin, patriarchal vicar of the Syriac Orthodox Church in Istanbul, Diyarbakır Mayor Osman Baydemir and Sur Mayor Abdullah Delibaş.
The St. Giragos Church was blessed on Oct. 22 in accordance with the traditions of the Apostolic Armenian Church.
The restoration work was funded by donations from Armenians in Istanbul and abroad through an initiative spearheaded by Vartkes Ergün Ayık, a businessman of Armenian origin whose roots lie in Diyarbakır, and Raffi Bedrosyan, an ex-resident of Istanbul who now lives in Canada.
The Sur District Governor’s Office in Diyarbakır lent its support to the project as well.
“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 the Hürriyet Daily News.
Ayvazian said he was born in Turkey’s southeastern Şırnak province and speaks very fluent Turkish. “As with many Armenian-Americans, we also spoke Turkish at home,” he said, adding that his parents could not speak Armenian.
Responding to a question about why Armenian-Americans keep Turkey at an arm’s length, he said: “The reason is blatantly obvious. There was a genocide. An apology, a heart-felt step forward, could entirely banish this dispute.”
“It is exceedingly important for the two peoples to engage in dialogue, but without forgetting that great, dark disaster of history, like genocide,” Raffi Hovhannesiyan, leader of Armenia’s Heritage (Jarankutyun) Party, told the Hürriyet Daily News.
“I feel utterly alone among thousands of people now. Why were my people dispersed to all corners of the world?” said Yervant, a virtuoso who plays the “ud,” a traditional stringed musical instrument, speaking to the Hürriyet Daily News.
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.