Huffington Post
April 24 2015

Religion News Service | By Tania Karas

YUKARI BAKRACLI, Turkey (RNS) This tiny Kurdish village outside the
city of Van in Turkey's southeast is home to the ruins of a once-famous
11th-century Armenian Christian monastery.

Known to Armenians as Varagavank, it thrived as a place of worship
until Turkish forces looted it and murdered parishioners in the mass
killing sprees of 1915.

Today, the roof is collapsing. Toppled stone columns lie nearby. And
with no signage, there is no acknowledgment it was once a celebrated
church for Armenians.

Varagavank is one of hundreds of disappearing physical reminders
of a community whose history in present-day Turkey goes back more
than 2,000 years. Over the past century, the Turkish government,
in writing its own narrative of what Armenians call genocide, has
destroyed many Armenian churches, homes, schools and cemeteries or
allowed them to fall into ruins. They are sites other countries might
consider valuable antiquities.

"The term we use for this is 'cultural genocide,'" said Vahram
Ter-Matevosyan, a historian at the American University of Armenia
in Yerevan, Armenia's capital. "We consider what is happening to
many churches a continuation of the genocide which started at the
beginning of the 20th century. It is painful, utterly painful."

Historians and visitors have noted holes in the ground of Armenian
historical sites throughout Turkey, evidence of widespread rumors
that Armenians buried their riches before fleeing.

Hermine Sayan, an Armenian who lives in Istanbul, said her heart was
broken when she visited what remained of a destroyed church in Malatya,
a city in eastern Turkey, a few years ago.

"We stood together saying our prayers, and we were crying," said Sayan,
whose grandparents survived the genocide.

On Friday (April 24), Armenians worldwide will commemorate 100 years
since almost 1.5 million of their ancestors died in the last days
of the Ottoman Empire, in massacres, by starvation or during forced
death marches into the Syrian desert.

The date marks a century of fierce disagreement between Armenia
and Turkey over what happened that spring. Armenians and their
supporters -- including many historians, Pope Francis and the European
Parliament -- say the murders constitute a systemic elimination of
their population from eastern Anatolia in present-day Turkey.

But Turkey rejects the genocide label, saying hundreds of thousands
of both Turks and Armenians died in battles between Ottoman and
Russian forces in World War I. In a move that disappointed Armenians,
the White House on Tuesday (April 21) announced that President Barack
Obama would not use the word "genocide" to describe the deaths despite
his 2008 presidential campaign promise to do so.

Preservation and respect of Armenian history, culture and monuments
in Turkey is a critical step toward Turkish-Armenian reconciliation,
said George Aghjayan, an Armenian-American from Westminster, Mass.,
who studies Armenian demographics in Turkey and its environs.

"We have a right to our presence on this land," said Aghjayan, who
plans to visit former Armenian villages and ruined sites in Van this
weekend. "It's where our people were born, and it shouldn't be devoid
of any evidence of their presence."

Van, located on Lake Van's picturesque shores, was once the capital
of Vaspurakan, the first and biggest kingdom of greater Armenia. Van
was also where, in 1915, Armenians saved thousands of their own when
they held back the Ottoman army from city walls for a month. Resistance
leaders who survived the siege founded the Armenian republic.

The Van Museum, however, offers a different take on regional history.

One exhibit shows the "massacre (of Turks) undertaken by the Armenians
during the occupation of Van in 1915 by the Russian troops," according
to the Turkish Ministry of Culture and Tourism's website. (The museum
was damaged in a 2011 earthquake and is being rebuilt.)

Present-day Van is part of unofficial Turkish Kurdistan. No Armenians
are left; Turkey's 60,000 remaining Armenians mainly live in Istanbul.

But Van and nearby villages contain what are known as Turkey's
"hidden Armenians," descendants of women and children who converted to
Islam after they were adopted by sympathetic neighbors or forced into
marriage. Some are upfront about their origins, said Ferzan Demirtas,
a tour guide in Van. But others stay silent, still fearful after a
century of living as Kurds or Turks.

Cengiz Aktar, a scholar of Armenian-Turkish relations with the
Istanbul Policy Center, argues that the Turkish attitude toward its
Armenian minority is shifting. Aktar studies the politics of memory,
or the influence of politics in how collective remembrances take shape.

"The real memories are undertaken by Turkish society," Aktar said,
adding that Turkish citizens are increasingly exploring the truth
behind what they learned in school.

Turkey's attempt to rewrite history is evident in Yemislik, another
village outside Van, where Turkish officials replaced a former Armenian
monastery with a mosque. But Van is perhaps best known for the Armenian
Church of the Holy Cross on Akdamar Island in Lake Van.

It is one of the only Armenian churches restored by the Turkish
government, though it operates as a state museum.

On the eve of its reopening in 2007 after nearly a century of disuse,
Turkish officials balked at placing a cross on the church's dome. They
relented after a few years.

So far, Turkish promises to restore other sites have gone unfulfilled,
leaving some to ponder whether Armenians of the diaspora should pitch
in. Aghjayan, however, questions the logic of asking Armenians to pay
for restoration of churches and villages from which their ancestors
were displaced.

"What kind of justice is that?" he asked.