Commentary: Two Armenian Patriarchates, Two Major Challenges


By Edmond Y. Azadian

The Armenian Church has four hierarchical centers: the Catholicosate and Supreme Patriarchate at Holy Echmiadzin, the Cilician Catholicosate in Antelias and the two patriarchates in Jerusalem and in Istanbul.

Given the importance that the Armenian Church has played throughout our history, any wise person would consider the four hierarchical centers above personal or partisan politics, to allow the church to continue to play its historic role in these troubled times. Since Armenians have mostly lost the focus on what is — and what is not — important for their collective survival, they have allowed personal and partisan politics to jeopardize the role of our major religious centers.

The catholicos of Antelias has been challenging the supremacy of the Mother See at Echmiadzin, courtesy of one political group. The Catholicosate in Antelias seems to have entered into an intractable track, extending its tentacles in communities which are under the jurisdiction of the Mother See. Some spineless people have already resigned themselves to this intransigence as a fact of life.

At this stage, the unity between Holy Echmiadzin and Antelias is a far cry, and it may continue to be so, far into the foreseeable future.

On the other hand, the patriarchates of Jerusalem and Istanbul, which have also played historic roles in these respective volatile regions, have entered a crisis period. The decimated and fragmented diaspora is not in a position to help these two major institutions to continue their vital missions. The two patriarchs are incapacitated for different reasons and they are being subjected to partisan or personal politics.

Archbishop Torkom Manoogian, patriarch of Jerusalem, has finally realized his personal limitations due to advanced age and has convened the St. James Brotherhood to elect a coadjutor patriarch to assist him in discharging his very taxing duties. We do hope that wisdom reigns and by mid-March the most qualified candidate is elected to the position.

The Jerusalem patriarchate is governed by its internal by- laws and no outside authority can intervene or influence the Brotherhood’s activities. The system, of course, protects the Brotherhood from outside interference, yet it precludes transparency,which has been demonstrated time and again, opening the door to fraudulent behavior by some unscrupulous clergy.

The Istanbul Patriarchate has an entirely different set-up and at this time it is experiencing serious crisis because of Patriarch Mesrob Moutafian’s incurable disease.

Even after the Genocide, the successor Turkish government has continued to oppress, decimate and expropriate the minorities, and especially the Armenian community, in violation of its international commitment to the Treaty of Lausanne of 1923.

For many years, community representatives had to endure all kinds of humiliation and intimidation, to comply with the Byzantine regulations, simply to be able to paint a wall or repair a crack in a church.

The Turkish authorities are so enmeshed in the community’s life, that they stifle any activity or initiative.

Therefore, when Patriarch Mutafian was incapacitated, the Turks found another golden opportunity to further divide the community.

Historically, the Armenian community’s affairs were guided and regulated by the “National Constitution” (Azkayin Sahmanatroutioun) approved by the Ottoman Sultan in 1863.

But that constitution is defunct now under the more “democratic” Republican administration.

Any serious initiative, like the election of a new patriarch today, is subject to the whims of functionaries; they can concoct rules every day, only to violate them the next day.

Of course, PatriarchMutafian’s case created a more complicated situation, thereby providing a field day for the Turkish authorities to wreak havoc in the community.

For all practical purposes, the office of patriarch is vacant, since Archbishop Mutafian is fully and permanently incapacitated.

In addition to the Religious Council, an Election Committee was formed, each one applying to the government for a different permission. For people living in civilized countries it is incomprehensible why any government should so be involved with the religious affairs of a minority. But with Turkey being such a model of a “democratic” state, that is how minority life is controlled.

The Election Initiative Committee applied to the government to elect a new patriarch.

The Religious Council applied for a co-adjutor patriarch. It was a golden opportunity for the Turkish authorities to pit one group against the other and it allowed the election of a deputy patriarch, which technically can be appointed only by the patriarch himself.

But Archbishop Aram Ateshian coerced the Religious Council, a group of pliant clergy beholden to him for their livelihood, to “elect” him as the patriarch’s deputy.

Today the Armenian community is in turmoil trying to define the terms of deputy patriarch, locum tenens and co-adjutor patriarch. The locum tenens is an elective position when the patriarch’s seat is vacant. The co-adjutor patriarch is also an elective position when the patriarch is incapacitated.

In his smooth way of “electing” himself to the position of deputy patriarch, Archbishop Ateshian bypassed the two other candidates, namely Archbishop Bekjian and Bishop Chouljian, who are irate now. Lawsuits are being contemplated and Archbishop Ateshian’s spiritual calling is being questioned. For example, the weekly Agos newspaper ran a story on Archbishop Ateshian using the patriarchate’s authority and resources to settle a sizeable family estate for a personal commission. The saintly cleric has justified himself that the commission received was in compensation for his “hard work” and it is fully justified.

Archbishop Ateshian seems to be the ideal candidate of the Turkish authorities, ready to tend to their wishes and whims and keeping the Armenian community in turmoil.Not only is the community at unease, just recently the auditing committee resigned in protest, leaving Archbishop Ateshian to his own devices, to run the affairs of the patriarchate.

More sober heads are calling for calm and unity to be able to speak with one voice, a prospect that may never be materialized in Istanbul as long as the string are in the hands of the Turkish authorities.