Church bells ring in a corner of Turkey once the site of Armenian genocide

By GIL SHEFLER |  Religion News Service – 5/10/13

DIYARBAKIR, Turkey • For almost a century, the bells of St. Giragos — a magnificent 14th-century church built of sturdy black basalt bricks — were silent.

Severely damaged during the 1915 massacre and deportation of local Christians, it stood roofless and abandoned for decades, a poignant reminder of the void left by the killing of its congregants.

Yet for several months now the tolling of bells can once again be heard emanating from the belfry and echoing through the city’s narrow alleyways and busy markets.

St. Giragos recently underwent an extensive $3 million dollar restoration that included a new roof, the reconstruction of all seven of its original altars — a unique feature for a church, which usually has just one — and the return of an iron bell to its belfry.

“Right now the bells are just symbolic,” said Arahim Demirciyen, an ethnic Armenian who rings the bells twice a day. “A priest is currently in training in the Armenian quarter in Jerusalem. When he finishes and arrives here we can also start holding regular weekly services.”

The reopening of what church officials say is the largest Armenian place of worship in southeastern Turkey is part of a re-evaluation by Kurdish Muslims of the active role their ancestors played in the killings of minorities including Armenians, Assyrians, Greeks and Jews in the twilight years of the Ottoman Empire.

Last April, the Peace and Democracy Party, which seeks more freedom for Kurds in the southeastern part of the country, acknowledged the atrocities carried out in the area 98 years ago and called on the Turkish government to recognize the killings of Armenians as an act of genocide.

Its declaration flew in the face of Turkey’s longtime insistence that the mass killings during and immediately after World War I were not premeditated but part of a civil war that pitted the region’s peoples against each other in a desperate struggle for power.

Abdullah Demirbas, the Kurdish mayor of Diyarbakir, has presided over several initiatives aimed at commemorating his city’s once numerous Christians. Under his leadership, the municipality paid for 15 percent of the renovation of St. Giragos, unveiled a monument in memory of the 1915 victims at a local park and plans to open an Armenian museum.

Such acknowledgment comes as a breath of fresh air for the few dozen Armenians in Diyarbakir — a city where they were once a majority.