Turkey Pulse

Who will decide new spiritual leader of Turkey's Armenians?

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Article Summary
Armenians are wondering how much interference they might encounter in electing a patriarch to replace the late Mesrob II Mutafyan.

Some 60,000 Armenians in Turkey are preparing to elect a new spiritual leader after the death of their beloved Patriarch Mesrob II Mutafyan, but the election process may become tangled due to interference by various actors.

On March 8, Armenians lost their brightest patriarch of recent times. In fact, this was a farewell that lasted 10 years because of the patriarch’s severe dementia. He was only 62.

The process to elect the new patriarch is to begin at the end of a 40-day mourning period, but because of inescapable interference from several quarters, Armenians are now heading into a difficult era. The Armenian patriarch position in Turkey is a tough one, under the heavy burden of tragic memories of mass destruction of the Ottoman Empire’s Armenian population in 1915 — a position stuck between the Turkish government and an Armenian diaspora angered by any move to reconcile.

According to Armenian publisher Rober Koptas, the Turkish state has always exerted tight control of the patriarchate to ensure the Armenians will remain a minority community and not be allowed to become an organized body, 

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The state doesn’t have the maturity to allow Armenians to freely select their own spiritual leader. That doesn’t mean that an elected patriarch would be vetoed by the government, but Ankara finds way to tacitly point out the “right” candidate that should be elected.

One way of doing that is by conveying angry rhetoric and threats via the pro-government media. Then there are some influential Armenians who are getting along well with the state regarding their own interests and who frequently act as state spokespeople, pointing out the state’s favorite candidates.

When 83rd Patriarch Karekin Kazanjian died in 1998, Mutafyan took his place later that year — after months of stalling and interference by the state. 

Mutafyan, who attracted well-educated, dynamic youths to the church, was quickly labeled by the state a "supporter of terror,” “Armenian nationalist” and “active militant.” But this kind of interference actually drove Armenians to unite. According to Koptas, unifying was the only thing the Armenian community could have done “to challenge the state.”

The state stepped up its surveillance operations against the Armenian community and that same year, much to the annoyance of many Armenians, Mutafyan was forced to express opposition to France's decision to recognize the Armenian genocide, saying it could damage progress in relations with Turkey

“The community is caught in the crossfire. Armenia, the Armenian diaspora and the Turkish government have conflicting views. When they go after each other, we are caught in the middle,” said Mutafyan in explaining the pressure he was under.

The government's interference became more visible when Mutafyan's diagnosis of Alzheimer’s disease was announced in 2008. One segment of the community said that, according to 1863 Armenian national bylaws, when a patriarch can't work anymore, a new patriarch has to be elected.

But in 2010, Archbishop Aram Ateshian secured a letter from the Istanbul governor (a presidential appointee who is reponsible for both national government and state affairs in Istanbul province) and was designated "patriarchal vicar general." According to many Armenians, such a post was nonexistent and was invented to prevent the election of a new patriarch. Armenians have a tradition of the patriarch naming an acting one when needed. But if the patriarch dies or is not in a condition to decide, a locum tenens (temporary leader) has to be named to initiate the election process.

Those who criticize Ateshian for acting like a government-appointed trustee claim the government was unsure of the political inclinations of potential candidates from outside Turkey. The government wanted to work with someone it trusts. Its message was clear: As the patriarch is not dead, there can be no election. However, of the earlier 83 patriarchs, 71 were replaced while they were alive and only 12 were selected after their predecessors passed away. Meanwhile, the government kept saying Mutafyan would miraculously recover.

“There was no recovery possible for [Mutafyan]. Nevertheless, Ateshian and his supporters referred to his illness, saying, ‘We believe in miracles, our patriarch may recover,’ and followed the government's ploy. Ateshian pretended to be the patriarch. Some circles approved that,” Armenian writer Sevan Degirmenciyan told Al-Monitor.

Controversy escalated. The Clerical Council of the Armenian Patriarchate in 2017 designated Karekin Bekcian, a senior cleric from Germany, as locum tenens, but the Istanbul governor did not accept the appointment. That rejection further enflamed Armenian anger: A protest against Ateshian was held at a concert and cartoons ridiculing him were drawn in the streets of Istanbul.

Now Mutafyan has gone and it is time for an election.

To elect a new administrator after the death of the patriarch, the Armenian Clerical Council and foundation councils will meet to form an election committee. They will apply to the Istanbul governor. Letters will be sent to potential candidates who were born in Turkey or whose fathers were born in Turkey, above 35 years of age. The council will choose five candidates from among those who want to run for the post. The names of very old ones and those not trusted by the Turkish government will be deleted. The election will have two phases: An assembly of 90 delegates will be elected, and then those delegates will vote for the patriarch.

In addition to Ateshian and Sahak Mashalian from Turkey, there are candidates from Armenia, Germany, the United States, Jerusalem, Australia and Brazil.

Degirmenciyan thinks a 40-day waiting period is unnecessary. “There was no such rule for elections of two previous patriarchs. The process is working very slowly. It will be September or October before a new patriarch is elected,” he said. “The community has had enough. People have lost hope. Can we really have a proper election?”

The Turkish government has excellent relations with Ateshian. But his name is worn out.

An internet site said to be close to Turkish intelligence circles provides a fairly good idea of who the government wants: Someone who was born in Turkey. There is not much sympathy for Bekcian of Germany, who wants to annul the 1863 bylaws that regulate relations between Armenians and the state. The election of Sebuh Culcuyan, a patriarch candidate from Armenia, would mean Armenians of Turkey would be taking sides with Armenia and Russia.

A second wall posting is even more striking: “The diaspora’s candidate is Khajag Barsamian, who adheres to the Cilicia line that follows the pro-Atlantic and pro-European ideologies. They remain anti-Turkish. The state will not remain idle to the diaspora’s interference with the election. If Barsamian is elected, that will be a victory for the pro-Atlantic stand. Thus there is only one option left: Armenian native and national, Ateshian.”

The slate of candidates is open to intervention, but in the end, Armenians will vote. With so many plots and quarrels, it's worth waiting for the outcome.

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Found in: istanbul, orthodox church, leadership, armenian genocide, turkey-armenia relations, patriarch, armenians, armenia

Fehim Tastekin is a Turkish journalist and a columnist for Turkey Pulse who previously wrote for Radikal and Hurriyet. He has also been the host of the weekly program "SINIRSIZ," on IMC TV. As an analyst, Tastekin specializes in Turkish foreign policy and Caucasus, Middle East and EU affairs. He is the author of “Suriye: Yikil Git, Diren Kal,” “Rojava: Kurtlerin Zamani” and “Karanlık Coktugunde - ISID.” Tastekin is founding editor of the Agency Caucasus. On Twitter: @fehimtastekin

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