By Edmond Y. Azadian
The Istanbul Armenian community is one of the most isolated in the diaspora, participating in minimal interaction with the rest of the Armenian communities around the world. Given the fearful atmosphere in which they are forced to live, it is logical that they try to avoid making waves in managing their community affairs. They are instinctively attuned to the political pendulum, which cyclically may swing from periods of freedom followed by periods of repression.
The Armenian community is recognized as a religious minority by the authorities in Turkey. For the last nine years, however, a time bomb has been ticking because of that classification. That time bomb began ticking when the elected patriarch, Archbishop Mesrob Mutafyan, was declared incapacitated and a race to succeed him began.
The vacuum created at the Patriarchate contributed to the confusion and chaos in the community. Two groups appealed to the authorities to obtain permission to elect a new patriarch or a co-adjutor patriarch. The government did not need any better excuse to extend the confusion by authorizing neither proposal.
In the interim, Archbishop Aram Ateshyan managed to appoint himself as a vicar by the Clerical Assembly, a religious body there which is beholden to him. That was an unusual step which the community believed it was temporary. However, Archbishop Ateshyan tried to extend the arrangement by ingratiating himself to the authorities. A blatant example was his simpering letter to President Erdogan after the German Bundestag voted to recognize the Armenian Genocide. He also abused his position for personal gain and tried to justify his abuses unabashedly. His delaying tactics paid off and his candidacy gained some traction. The authorities did not hide their sympathy towards the docile clergy which signified a nod to the affluent leadership of the community, whose business dealings depend entirely on the good will of the government. Thus, Ateshyan was heading towards an eventual fait accompli when the ticking time bomb blew out.
Indeed, there are three other announced candidates for the patriarchal election besides Ateshyan, namely Archbishop Sahak Mashalyan, Primate of Germany Archbishop Karekin Bekjian and Primate of Gougark Diocese in Armenia Archbishop Sebouh Chuljian. Of the three, Mashalyan was serving in Istanbul as the head of the Clerical Assembly. Exasperated by the foot-dragging by Ateshyan, he threw in the towel. He asked the Assembly to designate a final date for the election and the termination of Ateshyan’s term as vicar. When the Assembly declined his request, he decided to resign from all his positions, give up his candidacy and leave the country.
That intemperate action threw the community into turmoil.
A hasty convocation was invited with the participation of all VADIP members. The VADIP is an informal council composed of the representatives of all parish councils, school boards and heads of charitable organizations. The council is headed by Bedros Shirinoglu, who is also the president of Holy Savior (Sourp Purgich) Hospital. Mr. Shirinoglu was successful in arranging a meeting with President Erdgoan, who had promised to get involved personally and designate an election date, after the country’s constitution referendum. Incidentally, Shirinoglu used the opportunity to badmouth Garo Paylan, an act of uncalled-for conniving docility.
The election of the patriarch is not the only case in limbo. All the schools, charitable organizations and hospitals have been denied permission to hold elections for many years. This degree of intrusion and micromanagement by the government contravenes the clauses of the Lausanne treaty of 1923, which supposedly guaranteed the freedom of minorities in Turkey. Now that Turkey is a “trusted ally” of Europe and the US, no one will bother enforcing the clauses of that treaty.
Before the communitywide planned convocation at the Bezjian Amira Hall at the Kumkapu Patriarchate, another meeting was held involving the two feuding clergymen, with the participation of 10 prominent community leaders.
While the larger group of representatives was waiting impatiently to convene the meeting, a smaller, closed group was continuing its deliberations past the meeting time.
Finally, an agreement was hammered out between the two clergymen: It was decided to hold a meeting to elect the locum tenens for the Patriarchate on February 17, to form a committee to expedite the election on the 18th and to submit a formal request on February 20 to the Istanbul governor to designate May 28 as the election date. The reason that the meeting dragged on for so long was that the agreement did not include a clause requesting Ateshyan’s resignation as vicar after the election of the locum tenens. Mashalyan had eventually conceded to sign the agreement, all along arguing that continuing the vicar’s role after a locum tenens is elected is counter to the rules of the Armenian Church.
As Mr. Shirinoglu entered the hall with the document in his hand, rather than the anticipated reaction to a peace agreement, he was confronted with hostile reactions. Many have called for the resignation of Archbishop Ateshyan and some of the arguments have even degenerated into brawls.
After many heated arguments both pro and con, the crowd was dispersed without witnessing a firm solution to the crisis. While the agreement has been suspended, the two clergymen have been invited to Holy Echmiadzin to iron out their differences before Karekin II, Catholicos of All Armenians, who has been following the events day by day.
It is extremely difficult to detect all the nuances of the problem, especially by reading the newspaper accounts published in Istanbul. Because of the terror-filled atmosphere, the media there has resorted to self-censorship. Consequently, they have developed a style marked by verbosity. One has to read column after column to get to the gist of the matter. The only journalist who has dared to call a spade a spade was Hrant Dink, who lost his life because of his honesty. Agos, founded by Dink, does not favor Ateshyan’s candidacy and by the same token, does not endorse Mashalyan’s temperamental behavior. The two other daily newspapers, namely Jamanak and Marmara are very vague, understandably, because whoever is elected patriarch has the resources to punish the papers. The Patriarchate indirectly subsidizes the newspapers through paid ads. Archbishop Mutafyan had used that method effectively in the past in silencing criticism leveled at him in the media. Even besides the financial relationship the newspaper editors are circumspect to figure out that they will have to live with whoever is elected. Therefore, they do not wish to rock the boat.
For centuries Armenians have placed their confidence in the church and the clergy for good reason. But over the years, the church has become a shell of its former self in the hands of inept, self-centered and vindictive clergymen.
In view of the drama unfolding in Istanbul, any rational group would disqualify both candidates who are at each other’s throats for self-glory.