Turkey’s Armenians in Crisis over Patriarch

By Orhan Kemal Cengiz

ISTANBUL (Al monitor) — Turkey’s Armenian community is eagerly awaiting the outcome of a lawsuit at the Council of State, the country’s top administrative court, that is likely to have a major impact on how the Armenian patriarchate of Constantinople’s functioning in the future. The legal battle concerns who should elect the Armenian patriarch — a small group of clergy or the broader community.

A rift over the spiritual leadership of Turkey’s Armenian community exposes the Turkish state’s political machinations in dealing with this minority.

In one headline, for instance, Agos depicts Aram Atesyan as patronizing and calls him “archbishop” to make clear it does not recognize him as acting patriarch. The article further underscores the paper’s rejectionist position: “In an interview with the Jamanak newspaper, Archbishop Aram Atesyan has yet again made very controversial remarks. His comments on various issues, such as his bid for central civilian management, the irregularities in the foundation elections, the home he purchased in the [resort town of] Bodrum, and the patriarchate’s financial accounts are the latest example of his self-righteous attitude.”

The newspaper Taraf has also reported on the community’s objections to Atesyan. In a February 15 article, “Crisis in Patriarch’s Election,” Sebu Aslangil, one of the lawyers in charge of the lawsuit at the Council of State, is quoted as saying, “The Interior Ministry imposed on us a deputyship office and the patriarchate went along. … Atesyan erred in not resisting the election of a deputy, something nonexistent in our traditions, and for having himself elected to the post.” Another community member, Sahin Gezer, was reported as noting, “Aram Atesyan well could have rejected the post in the face of election demands.”

So, the tragic illness of the elected patriarch, the ensuing failure of the Armenian community to reach a compromise and their decision to seek the state’s arbitration — in addition to the government seeing the situation as a golden opportunity to control the patriarchate — have together created an acute crisis that may drag on for years.

The crisis demonstrates not only the Armenian community’s problematic relationship with the state, but also the Turkish state’s unchanging policy of meddling and manipulation vis-à-vis its minorities despite changing governments. It is a typical divide-and-rule tactic, which constitutes a flagrant breach of religious freedom and serves neither the Armenian community nor Turkish democracy.