In his statement commemorating the Armenian Remembrance Day on April 24, President Joe Biden said, “We honor their story. We see that pain. We affirm the history. We do this not to cast blame but to ensure that what happened is never repeated.” Biden’s recognition of the Armenian Genocide, following similar steps by the House of Representatives and Senate in 2019, has strained U.S.-Turkish ties even further at a time when bilateral relations are at an all-time low. Although there is little room for reconciling Washington’s and Ankara’s conflicting takes on history, cultural heritage diplomacy offers the Biden administration a positive agenda to engage receptive stakeholders in Turkey to strengthen pluralism and social inclusion.
The discrimination Turkey’s ethnic, religious, and sexual minorities continue to experience and its corrosive effects on Turkish democracy and society remain key concerns for the United States. In March, Biden’s first official statement on Turkey was to express his disappointment on Ankara’s withdrawal from the Council of Europe Convention on Preventing and Combating Violence Against Women and Domestic Violence, also known as the Istanbul Convention. In its 2021 annual report released the following month, the U.S. Commission on International Religious Freedom (USCIRF) recommended the State Department include Turkey on its “Special Watch List” for engaging in or tolerating severe violations of religious freedom. USCIRF also recommended the U.S. government direct the diplomatic corps to “track religious communities’ efforts to open, regain, renovate, and protect places of worship and other religious sites of spiritual, cultural, or historic importance.” This is one policy recommendation that could serve Biden’s commitment to “ensure that what happened is never repeated,” while advancing outreach to Turkey and its diverse citizenry beyond the narrow confines of Ankara.
Religious and cultural heritage sites are not only reminders of the atrocities of the past, but also have the potential to serve as sanctuaries for reconciliation and amends making. Turkey’s Armenian heritage sites provide opportunities to heal wounds both for the country’s estimated 200,000 Armenians and also for the Armenian diaspora in the United States and around the world.
The benefits and pitfalls
Two projects from the last decade involving the restoration of two iconic Armenian churches in Turkey offer crucial insights as to the benefits and pitfalls of such initiatives and can guide the Biden administration’s efforts at devising and implementing effective cultural diplomacy.
Akhtamar and Surp Giragos Armenian Apostolic churches in Turkey’s Kurdish-majority provinces of Van and Diyarbakır, respectively, went through extensive restoration projects, through different processes and with different outcomes. While the Turkish government undertook the former’s restoration through its Ministry of Culture, the Istanbul-based Armenian Surp Giragos Foundation spearheaded the latter in cooperation with the pro-Kurdish municipal authorities in Diyarbakır. Following these restoration projects, the churches came into service with significantly different functions: Akhtamar became a museum under state jurisdiction open for worship one day a year whereas Surp Giragos functioned as a church all year round.
For the Turkish government, Akhtamar served as a spectacle of tolerance, showcasing Ankara’s efforts to convince a predominantly Western audience that it respected minority rights. Ironically, the attempt to demonstrate “inclusion” played out through an exclusionary process. The Armenian community’s participation in the decision-making processes was limited. The site functioned as a state-run museum that required the purchase of a ticket to visit, except for an annual liturgy hosted by the Turkish government, with the participation of invited Armenian clergy from Istanbul. Although the site attracted thousands of Armenians from Turkey and elsewhere, they were the guests, and not the hosts, at this sacred Armenian site.
By contrast, the Armenian community were the hosts, and not the guests, at Surp Giragos. The Armenian foundation that owned the site was the main decision-maker. The pro-Kurdish municipal authorities of the Sur municipality and Diyarbakır metropolitan municipality were proactive in the restoration project, since they not only invited the Armenian community now residing in Istanbul to launch the project, but also provided significant moral and material support to the restoration efforts.
While Akhtamar served as a government spectacle for one day a year, Surp Giragos became a safe haven for past traumas to be acknowledged, by the descendants of both the victims and perpetrators of genocide. A diverse crowd attended the inauguration in 2011, during which Diyarbakır’s metropolitan mayor, Osman Baydemir, welcomed them by saying, “You are not our guests. We are your guests.” Abdullah Demirbaş, the mayor of the historical Sur district, followed him: “Our grandparents, incited by others, committed wrongs, but we, their grandchildren, will not repeat them.”
An opportunity for engagement
Heritage sites have the potential to serve as sanctuaries outside the narrow confines of everyday politics where reconciliation and amends making can take place, fostering an inclusive and pluralistic ethos. Cultural heritage projects that involve the preservation and restoration of minority heritage sites also provide the United States an opportunity to engage with multiple stakeholders, ranging from communities-at-risk and other locals to municipal authorities and state functionaries in Ankara. The dedication of U.S. resources to such projects, such as the support provided by the U.S. Ambassadors Fund for Cultural Preservation for the restoration of the medieval Armenian city of Ani on the Turkish-Armenian border, is a good example of how cultural diplomacy can go hand in hand with the promotion of pluralism and peace building.
As the Biden administration is getting ready for a bumpy ride with Ankara on a long list of foreign and security policy issues, cultural diplomacy focused on heritage of at-risk communities and carried out in collaboration with local stakeholders has the potential engage a wider segment of Turkey’s citizenry, including municipal governments, civil society organizations, and vulnerable groups and individuals. Such an engagement can accrue dividends not only for U.S. public diplomacy, but also for diversity and pluralism in Turkey.
Dr. Tuğba Tanyeri-Erdemir is a research associate at the University of Pittsburgh’s Anthropology Department and the coordinator of Anti-Defamation League's Task Force on Middle East Minorities. She serves as the co-chair of the Middle East Working Group of the International Religious Freedom Roundtable. The opinions expressed in this piece are her own.
Photo: hy.wikipedia user Rob, GFDL, via Wikimedia Commons