When tolerance is bulldozed
The incident of municipality bulldozers entering the Armenian cemetery in the southeastern town of Malatya last Friday morning and flattening the building designed as a place to wash the dead, a last prayer place and a guard house, did not unfortunately reverberate to the level it deserved in Turkish public opinion.
I have read all the stories, starting from the first that came from Doğan news agency from Malatya last Friday, columnist Oral Çalışlar’s articles in daily Radikal, official statements and, after speaking to some of the relevant people, here is the picture:
When the association wanted to build a new building
Let’s start with history. Malatya was one of the most important settlements of Armenians living in Anatolia before the1915 deportation. It is known that there were about 23 Armenian churches in and around Malatya before the deportation. It is estimated that the number of Armenians living in Malatya today is approximately 60 people. Malatya is also the birthplace of Armenian-Turkish journalist Hrant Dink, slain in 2007.
The Armenian cemetery is located on a hilly slope at the Çiltepe district of the city. When the republic was formed, the cemetery covered 2.7 hectares. It has constantly shrunk because of settlements built on it, including a school. The Armenian community in the city resorted to surrounding the remaining land with stone walls in 1969.
In 2003, because of road construction right next to the cemetery, the wall was knocked down, resulting in the collapse of the place to wash the dead and the last prayer place adjacent to the wall. The place to wash the dead was rebuilt but not the place of prayer. There was also a makeshift guard’s cottage in a nearby location.
The course of events entered a brand new phase when the association Malatya-HAYDER, founded by Armenians from Malatya who lived in Istanbul, knocked at the door of Malatya Mayor Ahmet Çakır from the ruling Justice and Development Party (AKP) last year to build a new building that would accommodate the place to wash the dead, the last prayer place and a guard’s quarters.
Complaints that it looks like a church
The mayor supported the project but said the municipality was not able to run the project. However, the association could go ahead and build the building if they could raise funds, he said. The project started with Mayor Çakır’s verbal approval.
The project of the building was designed by award-winning architect Kevork Özkaragöz. Association executives visit Malatya last June and made a presentation to the mayor. On that occasion, the association threw a banquet for 200 people at Kervansaray Havuzbaşı restaurant, inviting all the Armenians living in town. The banquet was also attended by the governor and the mayor. Head of the association Hosrof Köletavitoğlu described that evening as “a very pleasant evening where both sides embraced each other.”
However, in last October, as construction activities started, the color of the business also started changing. One of the reasons for this is letters of complaint arriving at the municipality that the building constructed at a hilly slope looked like a church. The municipality contacted HAYDER after a while and conveyed the sensitivity, suggesting some visual changes such as downsizing the 2-meter roof of the 5-meter building and cancelling the guard’s quarters erected as an annex to the left of the building. Next, an order arrived to halt the construction. One day after this order, last Friday, municipality teams arriving at the cemetery knocked down the whole construction.
Project to be constructed again with modification
This part of the story is also interesting. Mayor Çakır said he only ordered the destruction of the guard’s annex and the roof, but due to a misunderstanding or lack of coordination, the whole structure was demolished.
So the building is going to be rebuilt, this time by the municipality, with modification. There will not be a guard’s annex and the height of the roof ridge will be lowered. The building will not look as massive as its original when viewed from afar.
Yes, Turkey is a land of wide tolerance. Turkish statesmen complain to their Western counterparts on the rising Turk and Muslim phobia and racism. But the height of the roof of a building of a place to wash the dead and a place for last prayers for Christians creates sensitivity and people are extremely disturbed in this country.
Sedat Ergin is a columnist for daily Hürriyet in which this piece appeared Feb. 8. It was translated into English by the Daily News staff.