Erdogan Imposes Favorite Candidate on Istanbul Patriarchate

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By Edmond Y. Azadian

Byzantine laws in Turkey have contributed to the delays and complications in the election of a new patriarch in Istanbul. For nine years, the authorities have given the runaround to the lay and spiritual leadership of the community and at every stage have further complicated the process.

Archbishop Aram Ateshyan has time and again proven his loyalty to Turkey’s rulers to the detriment of his spiritual obligations to his flock. That is why the authorities rewarded him by extending artificially his rule at the Patriarchate, in the meantime using him as a political tool. He has been used on many occasions as the voice of the Armenian community in support of the government’s anti-Armenian stance. His rush to apologize for the German parliament’s resolution recognizing the Armenian Genocide discredited him as a religious leader of the community, but endeared him to President Recep Tayyip Erdogan’s circle.

The tenuous situation in the community, however, could not last forever, as Archbishop Ateshyan abused his position and resorted to various ruses to emerge as the sole candidate for the office of Patriarch which had been vacant for the last nine years, since the incapacitation of Patriarch Mesrob Mutafyan.

The situation came to a boil when an open row developed between Ateshyan and Bishop Sahak Mashalyan, president of the Clergy Council and a potential candidate in the election. That clash took place on February 16 and it shook the entire community.

After long deliberation amongst the community leaderships, it was decided to send both candidates to Holy Echmiadzin and defuse the situation through the mediation of Catholicos of All Armenians Karekin II. The two men were later joined by Archbishop Karekin Bekjian, Primate of Germany, and Archbishop Sebouh Chouljian, Primate of Gougark in Armenia, who also submitted their names for the position.

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A deal was struck at Echmiadzin creating a process to hold an election of a Locum Tenens (deghabah) at which time, Archbishop Ateshyan would resign from his position as vicar (patriarchal deputy) and the elected locum tenens would conduct the process of electing the Patriarch.

In the meantime, an electoral committee would be selected and an election request date would be submitted to the authorities. That date was tentatively set for May 29, 2017.

The election of the locum tenens is the prerogative of the Clergy Council.

Meanwhile, Archbishop Chouljian was eliminated from the race and Bishop Mashalyan withdrew his candidacy in favor of Archbishop Bekjian. Therefore, the contest became a race between Bekjian and Ateshyan.

In view of the fact that the members of the Clergy Council are beholden to Ateshyan for their livelihoods and the latter is the perceived favorite of the authorities, it was a foregone conclusion that he would emerge as the victor.

The election took place on March 15 and out of 34 votes, Bekjian astonishingly received 24 while Ateshyan received 11.

The courage and independence of the members of the Clergy Council were celebrated and all the participants, including Ateshyan himself, congratulated Archbishop Bekjian for his election.

The drama began when Ateshyan literally pulled a trick out of thin air. After the election, he returned to his office and emerged with a letter signed by Deputy Mayor of Istanbul Aziz Merjan, stating that holding an election at that date was not permitted. It was “illegal” yet no specific law was cited in support of the decision.

At the conclusion of the election, the entire community had expressed a sigh of relief that the controversies were left behind and a peaceful election process was unfolding.

Mr. Merjan’s letter cynically alluded that the election may repeat the turmoil created on February 16 and the annulment of the election would contribute to calm, especially when the community already had a spiritual leader in the person of Archbishop Ateshyan.

Although people are very cautious in their expressions under Erdogan’s dictatorship, Bishop Mashalyan blew his top by announcing that the election is the prerogative of the Clergy Council and the government has no right to intrude.

That was the general sentiment of the community, except of some of the more docile leaders, one of them being Bedros Sirinoglu, president of the Holy Cross Hospital and head of the VADIP (group of charitable and religious organizations).

Instead of blaming the government’s crude interference in the community’s religious affairs, Siringolu, in his immense wisdom, has blamed the community for not having patience for a few more months, forgetting clearly that the community has been enduring for nine years the government intrigues with respect to Armenian spiritual matters in Istanbul. He also betrayed the real truth in this charade by making the following statement: “I don’t express myself on behalf of Ateshyan nor Bekjian, but if the election had taken place between three candidates, Ateshyan would be the winner. Had Ateshyan won, the government’s letter could not have been issued.”

The leadership of the community has decided to seek an appointment with the governor of Istanbul for an explanation. While refusing to resign, Ateshyan has cynically agreed to accompany Mashalyan to the governor’s office, if and when an appointment is granted. He is already certainly aware what kind of “explanation” the governor has in store.

For all practical purposes, the governor will delay that appointment forever to extend Ateshyan’s tenure, until the community is exhausted and is ready to heed the “wisdom” of leaders such as Sirinoglu, advising them to acquiesce to the government’s dictate.

Archbishop Bekjian has emerged as a courageous leader. He had announced that he would visit Germany for a few days to take care of some urgent business and return to Istanbul to assume his responsibilities as locum tenens. That is, of course, if the authorities do not detain or deport him.

This interference in the community’s religious affairs opens a Pandora’s box, especially at this juncture, when Turkey can ill afford more adverse publicity.

By waging a war of words against the major European countries, President Erdogan has become a pariah among world leaders. As if his challenge to Europe were not enough, he is also trying to provoke Russia by closing the Straits to the Russian merchant marine, in clear violation of the Treaty of Montreux of 1936.

The Turkish government’s intrusion in the community’s religious affairs also contravenes the Treaty of Lausanne of 1923, whereby Turkey must guarantee the freedom of minorities. Article 40 of the above treaty specifically stipulated that they have [non-Muslims, Armenians] “equal rights to establish, manage and control, at their own expense, any charitable, religious and social institutions, any schools and other establishments of training instruction and education, with the right to use their own language and practice their own religion freely.”

Turkey has been intervening in Cyprus and occupying one third of that country under the pretext of defending fellow Turks. It has also sent troops to Iraq, despite the vociferous protests of its government, supposedly to protect Turkomans.

If there is such an international law to protect fellow nations, then Armenia must take advantage of it, too. Realistically, Armenia cannot send troops to Turkey because it is no match for Turkey but at least it can raise its voice at international quarters, such as the United Nations, the European Court of Human Rights and the European Union.

In addition, the issue, related to religious freedom, Echmiadzin can appeal to the Vatican, the World Council of Churches and other religious centers.

Also, other groups in the diaspora can and must raise their voices.

Now that Turkey has demonstrated its truce face, our appeals will certainly resonate further in various world quarters.

Erdogan’s diktat is not directed only at the Istanbul Armenians. It is a challenge to Armenians around the world.