Stalemate at Istanbul Patriarchate


By Edmond Y. Azadian

Sultan Erdogan’s ambitions to govern an empire extend from his contempt for the NATO alliance to negotiating a missile deal with Russia to micromanage the internal religious affairs of the miniscule Armenian community.

His April 24 message that no Armenian should feel like a second-class citizen in Turkey is contradicted by his actions in intruding in a cruel manner in the patriarchal elections in Istanbul. To snub the Armenian community, he has delegated the patriarchal issues to the deputy governor of Istanbul — not even the governor.

Last March, the Religious Council held a meeting and elected Archbishop Karekin Bekjian as locum tenens to supervise the election process of the patriarch. In his turn, Archbishop Bekjian appointed Bishop Sahak Mashalyan as his deputy. The election would technically terminate Archbishop Aram Ateshyan’s authority as vicar general, a position which he had wrested from the same council by coercion.

The council members are beholden to Archbishop Aram and the community believed that the council would fail to demonstrate its independence and vote for Archbishop Ateshyan. But the opposite happened with the election of Archbishop Bekjian, demonstrating the lack of confidence in Archbishop Ateshyan.

A subsequent visit to the office of the deputy governor of Istanbul turned everything upside down. In no uncertain terms, the deputy governor told the visiting delegation, which included Ateshyan and Mashalyan, to hell with your election and regulations, we still recognize Ateshyan as the representative of the patriarchate.

The reason given for this intrusion was that no permission was sought to hold the election. Neither the Treaty of Lausanne nor any code of conduct in a civilized country allow such arbitrary and contemptuous behavior. Therefore, Ateshyan returned from that visit victorious to his throne. At the same time, the Catholicos of All Armenians in Echmiadzin was caught in an inadvertent faux pas by sending a congratulatory message to Archbishop Bekjian.

Ever since, confusion has reigned in the Armenian community, a situation created by the government by design and not by default.

All three archbishops have been making contradictory pronouncements which indicate how tense the situation in the community is. Ateshyan is posing as the unofficial voice of the government, which scares some people into accommodation. Mashalyan seems to be a loose cannon, who continues his animosity towards Ateshyan. Bekjian had announced his desperation concerning the situation and his intent to resign but in a recent statement he has denied that intention.

On the other hand, the Turkish media is having a field day by playing up the controversies in the Armenian community. Recently, a contributor to the local paper Milliyet, Mert Inan, interviewed Bishop Mashalyan who has announced that “the reason for the delay in the election is not the incompetence of the leadership but because Ateshyan intentionally extends this situation, knowing full well that he will not be the winner if the election were held today. The church is paralyzed and no organization is capable of functioning. Karekin, who was elected as locum tenens, cannot perform his duties, because his powers are taken from him. Karekin and myself are trying to quiet the community by our pacifying pronouncements, but this silence cannot last forever. The election must be held soon to have the patriarchal seat occupied.”

Archbishop Bekjian seems to be restless. He is flying from Istanbul to Germany and from there to Echmiadzin. And now, he is planning to attend the extended session of the Supreme Spiritual Council, which the Catholicos has planned to hold in Moscow in the coming days.

Bekjian is a member of the Supreme Council in his capacity as the Primate of the Diocese of Germany. In Ateshyan’s absence from the session, he will also be representing the Istanbul Patriarchate, by default. This may indicate Echmiadzin’s preference towards Bekjian, while the Catholicos’ official position was to observe an equal distance from the candidates.

In Echmiadzin’s Easter message, Bekjian’s name was mentioned reflecting the general sentiments in the Istanbul community but contradicting the Turkish government’s diktat.

The community and the two bishops besides Ateshyan are trying to cling to Echmiadzin’s authority, which will prove to be counterproductive.

In his statement, Bedros Shirinoglu, the head of the Armenian community in Istanbul, has applied for a visit with President Erdogan to set a meeting date for the election. He hopes that during a forthcoming meeting of charity organization (Vakifs), which will be presided by Erdogan, Shirinoglu can meet the president for a brief chat.

Incidentally, the Jewish community is also planning to elect a chief rabbi. But they do not have the same controversy as there is only one candidate, Rabbi Haleva.

Archbishop Ateshyan reigns supreme in this chaos and continues to make his pronouncements as if with government authority. Countering Mashalyan’s statements, he has told the daily Zhamank in Istanbul: “As religious people we have not and cannot have personal issues. As two high-ranking clerics, we bear the entire burden of the Patriarchal seat on our shoulders. …. I do not avoid the elections, but getting ahead of the developments will not bring any solution to our problems. If we work in collaborations with the respective bodies, everything will go on easier and smoother.”

Ateshyan knows like everybody else that no one in his or her right mind would intend to oppose the “respective bodies.” Of course, all procedures have to be approved by the heavy hand of the government. But Ateshyan’s last sentence contains some code words meaning that by now the readers will understand that “I am the government’s choice so you better comply with that and drop your objections.”

This mentality is gaining traction among some pragmatic leaders of the community. Agos weekly is adamantly and vocally opposed to Ateshyan, expressing the prevailing sentiments of the community. The other papers and leaders have soft pedaled the issue so as not to be caught by surprise.

The Turkish government is not accountable to the international community. By all intents and purposes, it seems to have decided to impose on the community a man in religious garb functioning as a state employee in the Armenian community. We must not be frustrated if the inevitable happens. In the meantime, the other clergy may act more responsibly not to aggravate an overheated situation.

It is interesting to wait and see how long will this stalemate in Istanbul Patriarchate last.