‘If the Thief Is not from the House…’
By Edmond Y. Azadian
When the jihadists destroyed monuments and artifacts in the Mosul Museum in Iraq last week, their battle cry was “Allahu Akbar” (God is great). The same battle cry was heard when Islamic State (IS) murderers beheaded their Western hostages in Syria.
This is a battle cry all too familiar for the Armenians, as the mullahs shouted this phrase from the minarets, inciting the mobs to murder the Christian Armenians a century ago.
What sent shivers down the spines of the Armenians for the last one hundred years, today has become an ominous sign of an impending crime against the world community.
In truth, pious Muslims should be most offended with the abuse of this simple phrase praising God. “Allahu Akbar” is a call for prayer for Muslim believers, but over the centuries, and especially today when jihadists have declared a war against other religions — including other sects of Islam — in the Middle East, that simple invitation to prayer has become a fearsome rallying cry.
But this does not seem to bother Archbishop Aram Atesyan, who recently had invited a Turkish women’s choir to perform at the Asdvadzadzin Church in Ortakoy. And their repertoire? You guessed it: Allahu Akbar.
Admittedly, it was a tastefully-arranged musical piece, but the message was there: Allahu Akbar sung right in front of the altar, with a huge cross on the altar curtain, serving as a backdrop.
Call it whatever you will, perhaps a brotherhood between Armenians and Turks, but it irritated many parishioners who are used to hearing that call to prayer from the mosque, but never in an Armenian church.
Dikran Altun, a community leader there, commented recently in an interview: “He [Atesyan] has become like a sovereign — highhanded. He does not ask others about their opinions on any matter.”
Mr. Altun added that because of his worldliness and secular lifestyle, Archbishop Aram does not typify the people’s perception of a cleric on the throne of the Patriarchate.
Fellow seminarians from Jerusalem report that he has not even completed his religious education and lo and behold, he has been sitting on the Patriarchate’s throne under dubious circumstances.
A very peculiar situation has been created in Istanbul, with the illness of the incumbent Patriarch Mesrob II Mutafyan, who has been afflicted with an incurable diseases; an early onset of Alzheimer’s has reduced the patriarch into a shell of his former self.
Our church needs to draft a provision in its bylaws for just such a scenario, when a member of the clergy in a lifetime position is still living yet incapable of performing the functions of the office. During the 20th century, the Catholicossate of Cilicia improvised the position of the co-adjutor catholicos twice to carry out the functions of incapacitated office holders.
Patriarch Mutafyan has been ailing since 2008 and the medical prognosis suggests that he may yet live for another five years.
The Istanbul Patriarchate, which is the hub of the Armenian community life, is almost paralyzed. Initially the community was split into two and rallied around two proposals: either to elect a co-adjutor patriarch or to elect a new patriarch. The proponents of the latter proposal maintained that there is no precedent to elect a patriarch while there is someone in that position, no matter their health.
In any civilized country, the religious and administrative affairs of a church are not regulated by the state. However, in Turkey, despite the clauses of the Lausanne Treaty of 1923, the Turkish government controls every aspect of the church. They have even imposed a condition that the candidate for Patriarch has to be a Turkish citizen, though in the meantime, they have closed the doors of the Holy Cross (Sourp Khach) Seminary, to prevent any citizen from receiving the necessary religious education — a classic Catch-22.
The Greek community suffered under the same restrictions. Despite political pressure from Europe and the US, Erdogan’s government refuses to open the Heybeli Greek Seminary. At one point, Mr. Erdogan conditioned the opening of the seminary with the construction of a new mosque in Athens.
Thus, when the two parties approached the government, the response was inaction, which would conveniently paralyze the community.
The situation helped Archbishop Atesyan, who resorted to a an unprecedented move in the history of the Patriarchate: he convened a clergy council, all of whose members are beholden to him for their livelihood, and he elected himself to the position of acting Patriarch. According to Pakrat Estukyan, an Armenian-language columnist at Agos weekly, this was an indirect imposition by the Turkish state.
Mr. Altun believes that one of the main reasons for Archbishop Aram’s unpopularity is that the community perceives him to be a tool of the Turkish government. One proclamation of his gives credence to that perception: When Erdogan’s government began returning some of the confiscated community assets, and hospitals and churches began suing the state for the return of their own particular assets, Atesyan announced that the community is not equipped to handle all the assets, thus suggesting that what the government has returned thus far is enough. That is what the Turkish government wishes to hear from a person in the minority community in an official capacity. The archbishop believes that every confiscated church or property belongs to the Patriarchate, whereas the ownership of those assets rests with the survivors of the Armenian Genocide and their descendants, who eventually must come up with a mechanism to put their ancestral heritage to proper use.
The archbishop is blamed in other matters as well; his financial activities lack transparency. “We have no idea what the Patriarchate is doing, how much money it has and where it coming from,” said Mr. Altun. “By the way, I believe there is no money, that the situation is difficult. But they should inform the public about their plight.”
If the Patriarchate’s dealings are not transparent, the archbishop’s personal deals are very transparent. Indeed, it was reported in the Istanbul Armenian press that the Archbishop asked an Armenian family for half a million dollars as commission for helping that family process a substantial will. When asked about the propriety of expecting or receiving personal remuneration for having used the authority of his office, he answered that he has rendered a service and that he should be compensated for that service.
The community is expecting and asking for an election. At one point, there were four candidates for Patriarch. In time, some of them were discredited or dropped out. On the election issue, Atesyan had a fallout with the most influential leader of the Armenian community, Bedros Sirinoglu, chairman of the Board of the Trustees of Holy Savior (Sourp Purgich) Armenian Hospital in Istanbul. Mr. Sirinoglu has been a tough critic of the Archbishop and his activities and has been and continues to be a proponent of early elections. In the meantime, he is very flexible politician. Sensing that the Turkish government is behind Atesyan’s actions, he has toned down his criticism. “In order to hold the election, the community has to appeal to the government with a report on the state of the Patriarch’s health. Who is going to submit that report to the government, me or Atesyan?”
And then he concludes that it is not his responsibility to submit the report and continues, “The community has to have the strength to pressure the Patriarchate to submit the report officially, not some individual or the chairman.”
The Archbishop is minding his own business, ignoring all calls for a new election. He seems to be comfortable in his office, backed by the Turkish government. And the government has all the time in the world to wear down the opposition and keep a pliant clergyman at their beck and call.
The latest news is that Archbishop Atesyan will not be traveling to Armenia to take part in the centennial commemorations. It may be a sensitive issue for a clergyman in Turkey, but all that is necessary to defy the government position is courage, one that has been demonstrated repeatedly by secular Turkish scholars who have put their positions and personal safety at risk for acknowledging the truth about the Armenian Genocide.
After all, why do we care what is taking place in Istanbul, whether the person in charge of the Patriarchate even deserves the position or not.
But Turkey is not any country. It can use a clerical leader against his community and for that matter, the entire world Armenian community. There are already precedents; while Armenians all over the world were lobbying against Turkey’s admission to the European Union, Patriarch Mutafyan was dragged by the Turkish government from one European capital to the other, lobbying for Turkey’s admission.
By the same token, when the Turkish government was forced to return some of the community assets, Atesyan was the one who stood against it. Today, we have a full century of struggle against the Turkish state which is enjoying the loot of its ancestors and denying their crime. It only takes a whisper from Ankara to the person on the Patriarchal throne to say that we have no claim from Turkey.
For all instances and purposes, Archbishop Atesyan has demonstrated that he can be the perfect candidate to tend to his Turkish masters.
There is a saying in Armenia about inside jobs, which goes like this: “If the thief is not from the house, no one can steal the cow from the roof.”
‘If the Thief Is not from the House…’