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Patriarch election saga drags on for Turkey's Armenians

Turkey’s Armenian community has remained without an active patriarch for years as Ankara uses a legal vacuum to interfere in its religious affairs.

When Armenian Patriarch Mesrob II Mutafyan, the spiritual leader of Turkey’s Armenians, fell ill in 2008, few would have thought that the debate on how to elect a new patriarch would drag on for years. Yet, ever since then, heated debates and divisions have haunted the Armenian community.

The debate had initially focused on whether the circumstances allowed for the election of a new patriarch at all. According to customs, a new patriarch is elected only when the incumbent one dies or steps down. Mesrob II was seriously ill and unable to perform his duties, but he was still alive.

In time, the debate evolved into whether the community should elect a new patriarch or a co-patriarch. Competing to have their respective solutions adopted, proponents of the two options applied separately to the Interior Ministry for permission to hold elections. The ministry, however, made a decision that further complicated the matter, concluding that the community could elect neither a new patriarch nor a co-patriarch but a “patriarch deputy-general.” Although such a post was without precedent in the history and traditions of the Armenian community, the Patriarchate complied. In July 2010, Archbishop Aram Atesyan was appointed patriarch deputy-general.

By October 2016, any remaining hope that Mesrob II could recover was gone. Heeding church traditions, the Patriarchate’s Clerical Assembly had him retired on the grounds he had been unable to perform his duties for seven years. Thus, the process for the election of a new patriarch kicked off.

According to tradition, the Armenians first elect a “degabah,” or trustee, to officially launch and manage the election process and run the Patriarchate until the new patriarch assumes office. So an election was held March 15, with two candidates running for the post: Archbishop Atesyan, and Archbishop Karekin Bekciyan, the primate of the Armenian diocese of Germany. Eventually, the latter was elected degabah.

Soon, however, an “urgent” letter from the Istanbul governor’s office arrived to the Patriarchate, disrupting the process and further entangling things. The letter said the Armenian community was “well-aware of the fundamental methods and customs on the election of patriarchs,” stressed that a patriarch deputy-general was already on duty and proclaimed that starting an election process was “legally impossible.”

In short, the government’s interference derailed the patriarch’s election at the very outset. The Armenian community is now debating how to overcome this new hurdle. In remarks to Al-Monitor, Sebu Aslangil, a lawyer for the community, said Atesyan’s resignation from the post of patriarch deputy-general could remove the ground for the government’s intervention and allow the election process to resume.

This method may indeed prove effective in this particular situation, but it could hardly prevent other interventions on various pretexts down the road. In fact, the interference the Armenian community faces today is only a small reflection of the bigger problems that Turkey’s non-Muslim minorities face in general.

The real problem lies in the absence of any law on the institutions of religious minorities and the Turkish government's refusal to recognize those institutions as legal personalities. No doubt, we are speaking of a consciously and deliberately created loophole here. The absence of a legal framework has spawned an atmosphere that allows for all kinds of intervention into the affairs of non-Muslim minorities, as the case of the Armenian community’s patriarch election demonstrates. Without a legal framework, the government is able to create difficulties for the minorities and leave things in limbo as it likes.

On March 20, Garo Paylan, an ethnic Armenian parliament member for the Kurdish-dominated Peoples’ Democratic Party, submitted a written parliamentary question to the interior minister, asking why the election process was blocked. “The Armenian community met the letter [from the Istanbul governor’s office] with great dismay and deems it to be an intervention into the election process,” the document, seen by Al-Monitor, said. Paylan asked what legislation stood as a basis for the letter, who ordered its “urgent” delivery to the Patriarchate and what required this intervention at a time when the Armenian community had reached a consensus on electing a new patriarch.

In libertarian legal systems, the absence of rules on a certain subject means that full liberty is available there. In Turkey, however, the absence of legal regulations on religious interactions within non-Muslim minorities is being used as a pretext for interventions that make life harder for them and complicate their affairs.

The problem goes well beyond the election of spiritual leaders. It is a far-reaching climate of political and legal ambiguity that affects a long list of issues, including how non-Muslim religious entities can acquire property, how they can bring in clergy from abroad, how they can raise their own clergy in Turkey and what religious titles they can use. It is because of this climate that Ankara is able to claim that the Istanbul-based Ecumenical Patriarch, the spiritual leader of the world’s Orthodox Christians, represents only the 3,000-strong Greek minority in Turkey and cannot use the “ecumenical” title. It is because of this climate that the Ecumenical Patriarchate is still unable to reopen its historical seminary on Istanbul’s Heybeliada island, which was its main institution for training clergy before being arbitrarily closed in 1971.

In sum, as long as Turkey refuses to openly recognize non-Muslim religious institutions and legislate laws that respect human rights in this realm — something that both its founding document, the Lausanne Treaty, and various human rights conventions require — the climate of political and legal ambiguity will reign on, and Turkish governments using this or that pretext will continue to meddle as they like in the affairs of non-Muslim communities. Unless the giant legal vacuum is filled, the latest snag in the Armenian community’s election saga will remain as only one episode on a long list of interventions that will continue to extend.

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