Liturgy and the Limits of Minority Rights
“To find something that is lost is always a happy occasion!” So said Patriarch Sahak II Maşalyan of the Armenian Patriarchate of Constantinople, during his sermon at the first Divine Liturgy to be celebrated at the Holy Trinity Armenian Apostolic Church in Malatya, Turkey, in over one hundred years. Reconstructed through joint efforts of the “Malatya Hayırsever Ermeniler Kültür ve Dayanışma Derneği” (Malatya Armenian Culture and Solidarity Philanthropic Association, known as “HayDer”) and the Malatya Municipality, the reconsecration of the Սուրբ Երրորդութիւն/Surp Yerrortutiun (Holy Trinity) Church on Saturday, August 28, and the celebration of the Divine Liturgy the day after was a momentous, historic, and, indeed, happy occasion. Patriarch Sahak II deftly connected Christ’s famous parables from Luke 15 and the weekend’s “Feast of the Finding of the Holy Belt of Saint Mary” with the historic occasion. He emphasized the monumental event of restoring an Armenian Apostolic Church that had been abandoned during the Armenian Genocide of 1915 and left to ruin not only being renovated by a Turkish municipality, but again hosting Armenian Christian liturgical life. Joy at recovering something lost and the promise of new life, the themes of the Lukan parables, were palpable in the videos and news from the weekend.
Malatya, an ancient central Anatolian city known historically as Melitene, had a notable Armenian presence since at least the time it served as a Roman provincial capital. While the church, known colloquially in Turkish as Taşhoran, was left to ruin after the 1915 Genocide, Malatya was one of the few urban centers that maintained an Armenian presence throughout the twentieth century. Today, Malatya is famous among Armenians as the birthplace of Hrant Dink, the journalist and intellectual who founded the influential paper Agos and was assassinated outside of its offices in 2007. Several of the articles about the reconsecration mention the proximity of the church to the neighborhood where Hrant Dink was born.
While the Armenian population of the city has dwindled even since Dink’s birth in the 1950s, there remains an Armenian community. Crucially, even those Armenians who have left the city maintain a strong connection to it. Forging such a link between dispersed Malatya Armenians and the city and remaining community is the goal of HayDer, founded in 2010. The association supported literary and cultural efforts related to the city, such as the translation of a famous history of the city into Turkish, and was the organizing force behind the reconstruction of the church. Patriarch Maşalyan, in both his Armenian and Turkish sermons, emphasized that the occasion truly was a day of celebration—a bayram—for all Armenians and this broader network of Malatya Armenians, but especiallyfor the Armenian community still living in Malatya. The patriarch announced that Father Avedis from Iskenderum would take on a new role as the Տեսուչ/Desooch, the priestly superintendent for all the Armenians of Anatolia. Together with the reconsecration, his appointment means the regular resumption of liturgical and sacramental life for the small minority of Malatya Armenians.
Such robust liturgical life is absolutely central to the flourishing of not only the Armenian community but all ancient Christians living in the Republic of Turkey. This was underlined by the presence of Archbishop Gregorius Melki Ürek of the Syriac Orthodox Christian Diocese of nearby Adıyaman. At the end of his Turkish sermon, Patriarch Maşalyan thanked Archbishop Gregorius not only for his presence but for the fact that he had given pastoral care to the local Armenians in the absence of Armenian liturgical life, “not differentiating between Syriac and Armenian.” Predicated upon a joint liturgical recognition that the two ancient Orthodox churches are “in communion” with each other, the ecumenical pastoral care that will now be shared with Father Avedis demonstrates that for all the ancient Christian churches in Turkey, their right to live precisely as a Christian minority depends on continued sacramental and liturgical existence, a fact I have recently underlined in the context of stational liturgical practices in Istanbul.
Liturgical rights, of course, do not necessarily entail the full gamut of minority and human rights. Yetvart Danzikyan, the current editor-in-chief of Agos, noted the challenges of granting limited liturgical rights to minority Christians, suggesting that “unless these steps are supported politically, we should not expect further progress in Turkish-Armenian relations.” His comments point to a stark fact underlying the otherwise happy occasion: the entirety of the Holy Trinity Armenian Church was not reconsecrated. Rather, the altar was restored such that it could house a vemkar, the consecrated central stone of Armenian churches, that could be removed. On the Saturday evening before the first Divine Liturgy, the reconsecration service did not include anointing every wall of the church but rather blessing the new altar. As Patriarch Maşalyan detailed, when there are not liturgical or sacramental services, the space “will be used for the purpose of cultural endeavors.”
In fact, the Holy Trinity Church did not reopen fully as a church. Rather, in line with the support from the municipality, it opened as the Taşhoran Church and Cultural Center. Only occasionally will liturgical services be offered there, as is the case with another high profile church, the Church of the Holy Cross on the island of Akhtamar. Crucially, the assertion of minority Christian presence through liturgy is limited by the goodwill of the state and the details of the Turkish property and foundation laws. Garo Paylan, an ethnic Armenian member of the Turkish Parliament, astutely ascertained these limits and addressed a number of important questions about the status of the church to the National Assembly. Unlike the other fully functional churches under the care of Father Avedis, the “Taşhoran Church and Cultural Center” is not a vakıf, a recognized charitable foundation. Rather, it is supported by HayDer, an association, or dernek, governed by different rules. As I have argued elsewhere, the vakıf status is crucial to full community control over church properties and this status is nearly impossible for renovated churches from lapsed foundations to secure.
In his Armenian sermon, Patriarch Maşalyan argued against an “all-or-nothing” approach that would condemn the liminal status of the Holy Trinity Church in Malatya. Rather, he insisted, the “middle way” taken, opening the church as the “Taşhoran Church and Cultural Center,” allows for the resumption of liturgical and sacramental life and for a community gathering place for Malatya Armenians. Such liturgical and sacramental expression can and should be seen in light of a broader project for human and Christian minority rights in Turkey. Without diminishing the historical and joyous character of Divine Liturgy celebrated in a restored church in Anatolia after over a century, the opening of the “Taşhoran Church and Cultural Center” also demonstrates that liturgical presence does not in itself secure robust minority rights.
Christopher Sheklian is a post-doctoral fellow at Radboud University Nijmegen.
This essay was supported by the author’s participation as Senior Fellow in the “Orthodoxy and Human Rights” project, sponsored by the Orthodox Christian Studies Center, and generously funded by the Henry Luce Foundation and Leadership 100.