When I was in Bitlis last June, one of the co-mayors of the city said that they were considering the repair of the last remaining church in the city. Such a project would be recognition of the city’s Armenian heritage, as well as a positive gesture to Armenians in Turkey and abroad. My advice to him was to wait a little before taking any concrete steps, though I did not go into any details.

All the ancient Armenian churches of Bitlis have been destroyed. Only traces remain of the monastery at Koms, for example, and very little of it can be restored. Most of it was destroyed by grave robbers. At best there could be an excavation and the recovery of remaining artifacts for display in a local museum.

The last remaining church in Bitlis is a 19th century Protestant one, which has survived on the grounds of the city’s former tobacco factory. It was largely intact ten years ago. Its inner columns were still standing and it only lacked a roof. However, these structures collapsed three years ago (before the new co-mayors came to office) and only the outer walls remain standing. Having said that, the inner columns could be pieced together and the building re-constructed for public use as was the case with Sourp Giragos in Diyarbakir.

The Bitlis church in question was not an “Armenian” church because the Protestant community and its churches did not have ethnic designations like the Armenian Apostolic and Armenian Catholic churches. The Bitlis church was meant for all Protestants, who happened to be almost entirely Armenian in this region.

Since there are no practicing Christians in Bitlis today, having a church there will not serve any pressing purpose. If this church is renovated, it might better serve as a cultural centre – as well as a church – when there is a need. Sourp Giragos in Diyarbakir functions both as a cultural and a religious centre, and perhaps for that reason it attracts many Muslim Armenians. When I was at Sourp Giragos last Easter, around half of the people there were Muslim Armenians who felt strong ethnic kinship with other Armenians.

Such a cultural use of the Bitlis church might be more appropriate in Turkey today, where a large number of Armenians – perhaps most of them – are Muslim and deserve due consideration.

Given the above points, if the church in Bitlis is renovated, it should perhaps remain under the control of the mayor’s office – until better arrangements could be made for its administration. The church could still be called the Armenian church, with clear guidelines for its religious and non-religious use. That way, there would be no tug-of-war regarding denominational control over it or ambiguities concerning its upkeep.

Ara Sarafian

Gomidas Institute

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