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Armenian Christians celebrate Mass at ancient island church in Turkey in reconciliation effort

AKDAMAR ISLAND, Turkey (AP) — Several thousand Armenian Christian pilgrims took boats to an ancient island cathedral in eastern Turkey on Sunday for the first Mass held in the church since it was abandoned during the mass killings of Armenians 95 years ago.

In 2007, Turkey restored the 10th century Akdamar church perched on a rocky island in Lake Van — a vast body of water in eastern Turkey — and opened it as a museum. Earlier this year, Turkey's Islamic-oriented government, which is aiming to expand freedoms as part of its bid to join the European Union, agreed to allow once-yearly worship as a gesture to Armenia and its own ethnic Armenian minority.

"Today, we are experiencing the joy of praying in this church and of sharing a spiritual tradition that is eleven centuries old," Aram Atesyan, the acting patriarch of Armenian Christians in Turkey, told worshippers during the service.

He spoke of a need for peace, saying feelings of animosity and hate send people into "an abyss of darkness."

Turkey and Armenia are locked in a bitter dispute over the deaths of Armenians in Turkey. Many historians estimate that up to 1.5 million Armenians were killed by Ottoman Turks in what constituted a genocide around the time of World War I. Turkey disputes this, saying the toll has been inflated and those killed were victims of civil war and unrest.

Efforts to overcome historical animosity and normalize ties between the neighbors launched last year have been dealt a setback by the conflict between Armenia and Azerbaijan over the enclave of Nagorno-Karabakh. Azerbaijan is a close Muslim ally of Ankara.

Armenian Christians from Turkey, Armenia and Georgia traveled to the brown sandstone church for the service. Many others reportedly did not travel to protest the fact that a large cast iron cross was not mounted on top of the church as planned.

Turkish officials postponed installing the cross atop the church until after a nationwide referendum last week, saying they wanted to keep the symbolism of the cross from being used against Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan's ruling party. The symbolism could upset some Muslims; and a parallel force, Turkey's secular establishment, which includes the military, might regard it as a concession to Armenia and the Armenian diaspora.

Officials again postponed putting up the cross after the referendum, citing technical difficulties, but Mayor Yusuf Guni told The Associated Press the cross would be raised onto the church's dome in the coming days.

The cross was instead mounted on a platform outside the church for Sunday's service, and many pilgrims kissed it or knelt at it to pray. Some wept.

Elderly worshippers, some holding walking sticks, maneuvered up rocky pathways to the church with the help of younger relatives. About 50 people filled the church, while others watched the service from large screens on the church grounds.

"This is a historic event," said Karapet Hajipogosyan, who traveled from Yerevan, Armenia for the service. "I am reliving our past, I am remembering what we went through. My feelings are mixed."

Akdamar, called the Church of Surp Khach, or the Holy Cross, was inaugurated in A.D. 921. historical records say the church was near a harbor and a palace on the island on Lake Van, but only the church survived.

One of the finest surviving monuments of Armenian culture from 1,000 years ago, the church had deteriorated until its restoration at a cost of $1.5 million (euro1.15 million). Rainwater had seeped through the collapsed, conical dome. Its basalt floors were dug up by treasure-hunters, and its facade riddled with bullet holes.

Though some walls show Biblical scenes, such as a sea creature devouring Jonah as he is tossed from a ship, other frescoes have been destroyed and are today black patches.

"The feelings we have are of grief, pain but also of joy," said Hegine Makruhi Buyukagopyan, deputy chief editor of an Armenian-language newspaper in Istanbul. "I never dreamt that we would be able to come here" for worship.

Some of Turkey's 65,000 Armenian Orthodox Christians complain of harassment in Turkey, which has an overwhelmingly Muslim population.

Hrant Dink, an ethnic Armenian journalist murdered in Istanbul in 2007, was apparently targeted by nationalists for his commentaries on minority rights and the killings of Armenians a century ago.

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Associated Press writer Suzan Fraser in Ankara, Turkey, contributed to this report