Editorial: Patriarchal Election Tearing Istanbul Armenians Apart


By Edmond Y. Azadian

Many Armenians around the world may question why they should be interested in or bother with the election of a patriarch in Istanbul.

Well, any issue or a new development within the Armenian Church impacts on the global integrity of the church. Additionally, now that the Internet has reduced the world into a global village, Armenians are not left behind in networking, nor should they be.

The forthcoming election of a patriarch in Istanbul has its local and global dimensions. Church authorities in other spiritual centers can hardly effect the local forces or interests, nor they can counter the Turkish government’s manipulations, but they will be impacted adversely with the outcome of the election.

At this time, the Istanbul-Armenian community is in turmoil and factions are fighting each other about the modalities and candidates. And as Armenians know best how to insult each other, blames and counter-blames are being hurled against each other.

The irony is that in many countries the Armenian Church is organized and now on the local derivatives of the National Constitution (adopted in 1860 in Istanbul and approved by the Sultan in 1863), except in Istanbul. Elections and the organization of church depend on the whims of the Turkish authorities in violation of the Lousanne Treaty of 1923. That situation is fertile ground for personal ambitions and clannish interests to grow and to fester wounds in the community to the delight of the Turkish authorities.

Since the current patriarch, Archbishop Mesrob Moutafian, was incapacitated the community has been trying to find a way to replace the patriarch’s authority, and as there are no set rules and regulations, precedents are being explored but mostly, each group is expecting its goals to be approved by the government. And, of course, the Turkish government is keeping the community in limbo and encouraging and fueling the controversies among feuding factions.
In the absence of Armenian political parties, the banners of the battle are being carried by the local newspapers, which traditionally have shaped public opinion in Turkey.

The dailies Marmara and Jamanak and the weekly Agos have differing positions on the candidates and the methods of election.

The editor of Marmara, Robert Haddejian, first came out with the idea of electing a coadjutor patriarch, since the incumbent is alive and has been elected for life, although he is medically incapacitated.

The editor of Jamanak, Ara Kochunyan, characterized the idea as “a stone dropped by a crazy man in a well, which 100 wise men cannot retrieve.”
Incensed, Mr. Haddejian is questioning where is the illegality in the idea, and further, he is challenging Mr. Kochunyian to come up with the alternative, if he considers himself as one of those “100 wise men.”

Mr. Sarkis Seropian of Agos is blaming Archbishop Aram Atesian for using the coadjutor idea, trying to hijack the patriarchal authority. Agos weekly has been investigating the Hagopian family inheritence scandal where Atesian has used his clergy position to receive a cut from the settlement.

Currently the two camps opposing each other are headed by the Religious Council and the Election Initiative Committee.

The Religious Council comprises all the active clergy headed by Archbishop Aram Atesian. It is a non-elective group, whose members are beholden to Atesian for their livelihood.

Atesian, using his power in this latter group, engineered almost a preemptive coup by announcing that no election will be held, since the patriarch is alive and his functions will be carried on by the Religious Council, i.e. Atesian himself.

A reaction came when the Election Initiative Committee was formed by all the community representatives.

These two groups have appealed to the government with opposing requests; the Religious Council is asking permission to elect a coadjutor, whereas the Election Initiative Committee is asking to elect a new patriarch, without particularly defining the status of the ailing incumbent.

Yet, from all quarters, there is an outpouring of care and concern about the well being of Patriarch Moutafian, sometimes bordering on hypocrisy.

Of course, at this time, anyone’s guess is as good as others: the Turkish authorities may decide on a new patriarch, or coadjutor patriarch or they may well determine not to do anything, keeping the controversies and divisions in the community simmering.

In an attempt to eliminate potentially qualified candidates: the Turkish authorities have narrowed down the choice of candidates to a clergyman born in Turkey.

At this time there are three announced candidates Archbishop Aram Atesian, Archbishop Karekin Bekjian, Primate of Germany, and Bishop Sebouh Chouljyan, Primate of Gougark in Armenia.

The editor of Marmara has sent a questionnaire to all three candidates, asking their opinion on the election of coadjutor. All three are in agreement on the election of coadjutor, in deference to Archbishop Moutafian, who is still alive.
As for the current patriarch’s resignation, there has not been such a precedent in the annals of the Istanbul Patriarchate; only Patriarch Malachia Ormanian resigned on his own and was replaced.

But there is also no provision to elect a coadjutor. There is a saying in Armenian, Hargus Loodzaneh orenus. (It roughly translates that need will resolve the legality — or necessity is the mother of invention, if you will.)
The idea of a coadjutor is an improvisation based upon the precedents in the Holy See of Cilicia, where twice, Archbishop Sarajian and Archbishop Karekin Sargisian, were elected to save coadjutor catholicoi, when the incumbents were incapacitated.

At this time, the patriarchal throne is technically vacant and with the election of a new patriarch or coadjutor patriarch, peace and stability may be restored in the community, which has a host of problems, some natural, others created by the Turkish government to weaken the community.

The patriarchal issue has also other than local dimensions, within the world church hierarchy. Perhaps it is not fair, at this time to be critical of Archbishop Moutafian, given his sorry condition, but history has recorded his actions and activities.

He was a loose canon who was used by the Turkish authorities for their political ends.

While the Ecumenical Greek Orthodox Patriarch had the audacity to complain on “60 Minutes” time and again that he was being crucified in Turkey, Turkish authorities enlisted the Armenian Patriarch’s testimony that ethnic minorities enjoyed freedom Turkey, every time an international fact-finding commission was sent to Turkey. He also actively took a political role in campaigning in Europe in favor of Turkey’s admission to the EU, contrary to Armenian interests.
His most indignant outburst was when he publicly insulted the Supreme Spiritual head of the Armenian Church, which certainly pleased the Turks, but above all, it contributed to Antelias’ efforts to undermine Echmiadzin’s authority.

He was also kowtowing to Catholicos Aram I, in a covert design to isolate Echmiadzin. For a longtime Antelias had also been catering to the Grand Sacristan of Jerusalem, Archbishop Nourhan Manoukian, in the same divisive design.

Of course, Echmiadzin and Antelias have been monitoring developments in Istanbul. When asked about Echmiadzin’s preference of a candidate, Archbishop Sahak Nashalian, member of Echmiadzin brotherhood and himself born in Turkey, has stated in a public forum in Yerevan, that “Echmiadzin respects the will of the Istanbul Armenian community.” All along, Catholicos Karekin II has been sticking to that politically-correct line, but unfortunately, the people’s will has a very insignificant role in the outcome of the election, which is mostly determined by the Turkish government.

Of course Antelias is also on the lookout to seize any opportunity to consolidate its devisive ambitions. The authorities there have been floating trial balloons in the ARF press that the diaspora should organize itself in a single council to be headed by Catholicos Aram I. Any misstep in Istanbul will also contribute to that design.

In another instance, while the Georgian-Armenian community is struggling to gain legal recognition, an anonymous group has concocted an appeal to Catholicos Aram I to organize the Javakhk Diocese under his jurisdiction.
The convert struggle is still alive to consolidate church division as a historic fait accompli: Hopefully, the election in Istanbul will pacify the local community, avoiding in the meantime from pitfalls plaguing the Armenians worldwide.