German envoy moved by religious service at church in Turkey

german-envoy-moved-by-religious-service-at-akdamar-church-2010-09-20_l2.jpgGermany’s Ambassador to Turkey Eckart Cuntz joins the Mass at the Surp Haç Church on Akdamar Island in Van on Sunday, alongside members of the local Armenian community and visiting religious figures. ‘I felt happy to be a part of a big community, not only of Armenians, but also with many people from Germany, Holland… You saw Christians, but you also saw Muslims, even in the church. I was very happy to see that,’ he says

German Ambassador to Turkey Eckart Cuntz (R) paid a visit to Van Governor Münir Karaloğlu during his visit to Surp Haç Church on Akdamar Island. AA photo

Germany’s ambassador to Turkey, actively supporting Turkish efforts to improve its religious freedoms record, joined several thousand pilgrims Sunday at an ancient island church in eastern Turkey to observe the first religious service held there since 1915.

“This was something very moving for me that now, after all these efforts, the cross was there and such a service could take place. I do think it is a positive step forward,” Ambassador Eckart Cuntz told the Hürriyet Daily News & Economic Review in an interview Monday. The German envoy also participated in festivities when the historic 10th century Surp Haç Church on Akdamar Island was reopened as a museum after renovations were completed in 2007.

Earlier this year, the Turkish government agreed to allow once-yearly worship in the church as a gesture to neighboring Armenia and the local ethnic Armenian community.

“There were so many thousands of people attending the Mass,” said Cuntz. “I saw cars coming from Armenia and Syria … It was really a great moment,” he added, sharing his impressions from the landmark service that was aired live on a number of Turkish news channels.

Cross problem

Turkey’s Armenian minority and visitors from Armenia and Georgia traveled to Akdamar Island for the service. Many others reportedly did not attend the service in a show of protest over the failure to erect a cross on top of the church as planned.

“Certainly we wished the cross would have been on top of the church because I have learned from the Armenian Christians that this is very important,” Cuntz told the Daily News. “Of course, it would be desirable.”

Turkish officials postponed erecting the cross after the Sept. 12 nationwide referendum, citing technical difficulties. The cross was instead mounted on a platform outside the church for Sunday’s service.

“I think we should welcome this as a positive step and a symbol for religious freedom in Turkey,” said the German ambassador.

“Personally I felt happy to be a part of a big community of not only Armenians but also many people from Germany, Holland… You saw Christians but you also saw Muslims, even in the church. I was very happy to see that,” he said.

Europe closely monitors

Currently, Ankara is aiming to expand religious freedoms in order to bolster its bid to join the European Union.

When asked if he thought the opening of Surp Haç Church on Akdamar Island, as well as last month’s service at Trabzon’s Sümela Monastery following an 88-year ban, would reflect positively on an annual report regarding Turkey’s accession progress in November, Cuntz said, “This is the job of the [EU] Commission to write the report, but there has always been particular focus on the question of religious freedom.”

He emphasized that questions about Surp Haç Church and the Syriac monastery Mor Gabriel in the province of Mardin, in particular, always receive a high amount of attention from the European public, “because we are closely linked, because this is not just a question of the EU process but a question (of) how we can live together in this world, in Germany and in this country.”

“This is a question of common values, European values that we highly appreciate and respect.”

The ambassador expressed hope for progress on opening the Greek Orthodox Halki Seminary on an island off Istanbul and the St. Paul Catholic Church in Tarsus.

“That would all show something is moving in Turkey in the spirit of religious freedom,” said Cuntz.

Situation of St. Paul’s church in Tarsus

The envoy is especially following developments regarding the St. Paul’s church in Tarsus, which was open for pilgrims and worship during the 2008-2009 Mass, having traveled to the region with a German delegation a few months ago. He said after the church opened for the Mass, it’s administration was returned to the Culture Ministry.

“But they have a lot of pilgrims to hold these services whenever they want… Problems emerged because they asked for entrance fees, but the Ministry of Culture has abolished them, so I think we have a positive development and it has been noted in the German press,” said Cuntz.
“We certainly hope the building can definitely and permanently serve as a pilgrimage church. This is a question that remains to be decided, but I have [observed] progress.”