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Iconic Armenian church survives war but not plunder in Turkey: Al-Monitor

Iconic Armenian church survives war but not plunder in Turkey: Al-Monitor

PanARMENIAN.Net - Intruders have broken into the Armenian church of Surb Giragos in Turkey's Diyarbakir, apparently with a sledgehammer that was used to smash altars and reliefs, Al-Monitor says.

Armen Demirciyan, who used to work as a caretaker at Surp Giragos, said the news of plunder and desecration “cut him to the bone.”

In the 1950s, the Turkish state returned the centuries-old Surp Giragos Armenian Church in Diyarbakir to the city’s Armenian community, after having used it as a warehouse for years. Armenian writer Migirdic Margosyan, a native of Diyarbakir, describes how ironsmiths, carpenters, painters and goldsmiths from the city’s “Infidel Quarter” joined hands to “revive that wreck” and reopen it quickly to worship, keen to preserve “the legacy of their ancestors.”

Little could the volunteers have known then that the ordeal involving the largest Armenian church in the Middle East was far from over. By the early 1980s, Surp Giragos was a church without a congregation as Diyarbakir’s Armenians dwindled away. Abandoned to its fate, the church fell into decay. When a new restoration began in 2008, only its walls were standing, with the windows broken, the roof collapsed and the interiors filled with soil.

During the three-year restoration, every corner of the church was meticulously repaired. An expert craftsman — one of only three left in Turkey — was brought to Diyarbakir and worked for half a year to renovate and complete the seven altars. The overhaul was crowned with a new church bell, brought from Russia. As services resumed, the church became a meeting point for Armenians — natives of Diyarbakir but now scattered across the world — and an attraction for tourists visiting the city.

This new atmosphere, however, was short-lived. In the fall off 2015, security forces cracked down on urban militants of the Kurdistan Workers Party, who had entrenched themselves behind ditches and barricades in residential areas in Sur, the ancient heart of Diyarbakir, where the church is nestled. Only months before the clashes erupted, UNESCO had put Sur on its World Heritage list.

The militants used the church as an emplacement and infirmary to treat their wounded, as evidenced by the medical waste found later inside. As the security forces advanced, the militants left the church, and this time the security forces used it. After the monthslong clashes, the church emerged with its yard walls ruined and riddled with bullets. Still, the Armenian community took solace in the fact that the church itself was standing. The authorities promised to repair the church and return it to the community.

The church was presumed to be under protection since the area remained sealed off even after the clashes ended in March 2016. Since then, however, the church has become the target of thieves, who broke in twice and stole various objects. How the thieves managed to sneak in remains a mystery, for even members of the church board need official permission to enter.

Now the church is plundered.

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