Armenian church in Malatya hosts first religious service since 1915 as a culture center

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Alin Ozinian

The Surp Yerrortutyun (Holy Trinity) Armenian Church in Malatya, in east-central Turkey, on August 29 hosted its first religious service since the Armenian genocide of 1915.

Holy Trinity Church – built in the second half of the 18th century — was renovated by the Malatya Metropolitan Municipality and reopened as the Taşhoran Culture and Art Center. According to a statement released by the municipality, “From now on, the Armenian sanctuary will serve as a cultural center and the Armenian community will be allowed to hold liturgical, baptism and wedding ceremonies.”

After 106 years Surp Yerrortutyun, which was long in ruins and had been closed for congregational use since 1915, reopened its doors to worship.

The restoration, which began in 2012, was halted due to a lack of funding and then restarted and completed under the auspices of Malatya Mayor Selahattin Gürkan.

The Benevolent Malatya Armenians Association (HAYDER), established in 2010 in Istanbul, provided financial support for the restoration of the church’s altar, dome and baptistery and also participated in designing the renovation.

Armenians from across the country attended the opening ceremony and the first Sunday service at the church, located in the neighborhood where assassinated Armenian-Turkish journalist Hrant Dink had grown up, which was held with the participation of Armenian Patriarch of Turkey Sahak Maşalyan.

Yetvart Danzikyan, editor-in-chief of the Agos weekly newspaper, thinks it would be better if the Armenian Patriarchate in Istanbul had done the renovation but said it was financially impossible.

“The church opened as a culture and arts center. While it isn’t an ideal formula, maybe we should look at the bright side of things and accept this as the ‘salvation of the church.’ In Turkey, hundreds of churches are being destroyed and turned into ruins. The church in Malatya has somehow been renovated,” Danzikyan told Turkish Minute in a phone interview.

Armenian Patriarch in Turkey Maşalyan and Grigoriyos Melki Urek, deputy patriarch and the metropolitan bishop of Adıyaman, as well as Malatya Mayor Gürkan and Malatya Governor Aydın Baruş attended the opening ceremony.

“The opening of the Surp Yerrortutyun Church is a milestone for this region. For the Armenians of Malatya, this is a feast day,” said the Armenian patriarch.

According to Danzikyan, similar steps have been taken before, such as the reopening of the 10th-century Akhtamar Church situated on an island in Lake Van in eastern Turkey, but unless these steps are supported politically, we should not expect further progress in Turkish-Armenian relations.

In 2006 the Turkish government carried out a rehabilitation project to preserve the historical identity of the Akhtamar Church. In 2007 the church was opened to visitors as a museum. In 2010 the government decided to open the church for religious ceremonies once a year.

“I don’t think the opening of the Surp Yerrortutyun Church is a milestone or that it will have a hugely positive effect on Turkish-Armenian dialogue. But eventually the new Turkish generation living in Malatya will learn that Armenians once lived there,” said Danzikyan.

There have been ongoing concerns about the preservation of Armenian cultural and religious sites in Turkey. In January 2020 a 19th-century Armenian church was put up for sale on a Turkish real estate website. On January 26 Agos reported that an Armenian church dating to 1603 in the western province of Kütahya that was on the Turkish Ministry of Culture and Tourism’s preservation list was demolished after it was acquired by a private party.

Another Armenian church, also named Surp Yerrortutyun (Holy Trinity), will serve as the “World’s Masters of Humor Art House” as part of a project to establish a “humor village” in central Turkey’s Akşehir district.

Aris Nalcı, an Istanbul-Armenian journalist based in Brussels, thinks the renovation was a success for HAYDER, which was able to establish good relations with the Malatya Metropolitan Municipality.

“Although the church opened under the name of a culture center, it seems that the government will allow Armenians to perform religious ceremonies there. HAYDER exerted great efforts for this project. Malatya Armenians living outside Malatya are still deeply attached to the city. Even though a few Armenians still live there, people who left Malatya during the ’70s and ’80s still visit Malatya to preserve their culture,” Nalcı said.

According to Armenian sources, there is a tiny Armenian community of 60 people in Malatya at the moment; however, there are several Armenians and Islamized Armenians who live in the city using Turkish names whose numbers are not clear.

The aim of the establishment of HAYDER in 2010 was to reunite the Malatya Armenians scattered all over the world with their hometown and to repair the Armenian cemetery in the city. This goal was accomplished, and the cemetery was landscaped and reopened in 2013.

“The renovation of the church is a positive step, but I don’t see it as an important move for regional tourism or Turkish-Armenian dialogue. Moreover, I am now skeptical of every step Turkey’s ruling Justice and Development Party (AKP) government takes,” said Nalcı.

According to Nalcı, the AKP, like previous Turkish governments, is not interested in the protection of Armenian culture in Turkey. “The church was not reopened as a church, an important indication of the political atmosphere in Turkey. As long as it remains a culture center, the Armenian patriarch will not be able to even appoint a priest to the church. If everything had been done correctly, the church would have reopened as a church and a cross would have been installed there.”

However, Garabed Orunöz a board member of HAYDER, said in an interview with the Turkish press: “The patriarchate will not appoint a clergyman to the church, but Father Avedis Tabasian of the Hatay Samandağ Church will perform the rites and ceremonies in Malatya. He will go to Malatya from time to time to carry out his duties.”

According to Danzikyan the Turkish government does not have a general policy of preservation for Armenian historical monuments and churches. “It seems that this renovation was the result of an initiative taken by the Armenians of Malatya. With the help of their good relations with the governor and the mayor, they developed a cooperation and succeeded in securing their church. But other places of Armenian heritage in different Turkish cities are unfortunately at the mercy of treasure hunters, and the government is not willing to take any steps in these areas,” he said.

In recent years countless reports have emerged of sacked ancient churches and cemeteries in Turkey and houses that have collapsed due to excavations for contraband treasure. Looters dig into and destroy Armenian churches in the hope of finding treasure; however, what they sometimes find are ancient coins, bibles and crosses to be sold in illegal black-market auctions.

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