Windfall Divides and Unites Istanbul Armenian Community

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If this title looks like an oxymoron, it is. The windfall is compensation from the Turkish government for the confiscation of Armenian church property. The compensation has divided the community vertically yet united them horizontally. The leadership is divided over the procedures which eventually made the compensation possible and about the future use of this newly-acquired wealth.

The compensation has been awarded to the small and decrepit St. Nigoghayos Church in the Beykoz District of Istanbul and its Parish Council has already agreed to form a community fund so that the funds will benefit all the institutions of the Armenian community. Indeed, this is a commendable show of solidarity which is seldom seen in any Armenian community around the world.

In real terms, however, the compensation actually is not so much a windfall as a debt long owed. The Turkish government has destroyed thousands of Armenian churches, schools, hospitals and other institutions throughout historic Armenia. And contrary to the Lausanne Treaty of 1923, which gave birth to the current Republic of Turkey, succeeding administrations have dutifully confiscated the remaining churches, orphanages and cemeteries in and around Istanbul, to squeeze out the wealth of the entire Armenian community.

Actually, the Turkish government has micromanaged the church parish councils and other institutions, making them directly accountable to the state, against the state’s approval of their existence and operation, rather than allowing the churches to be accountable to the Patriarchate. During the reign of the Sultans, the Patriarchate operated as an autonomous head of the Armenian millet.

This treatment by the republic has left the Patriarchate without any legal authority over the community and consequently the churches and community organizations remain subservient to the state by design.

In this historic perspective, the compensation awarded represents an infinitesimal proportion of what remains in government custody.

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One has to be mindful that the current compensation has not been awarded voluntarily; it is the outcome of pressure from the European Union.

When Ankara’s hopes were very high for joining the European Union, some Byzantine laws were relaxed to enable the government to return community properties confiscated from the minorities. The Beykoz case has a very long history of legal battles; it started in 2008 when the laws were relaxed. The Parish Council of St. Nigoghayos Church sued the Istanbul municipality which had confiscated the cemetery property adjacent to the Church to build a public school. The parish had won the lawsuit at a lower court, but a higher court overturned the verdict and the legal battle continued until the current year.

Now that Turkey’s relations with the EU are strained, that discounts all hope for future compensations.

During the legal battles, Varoujan Maghakian, the chairman of the Parish Council of the Beykoz Church, approached the administration of Sourp Purgich Hospital to handle the case. From all newspaper accounts, Maghakian seems to be the true leader who has spearheaded the case. The chairman of the hospital administration is a prominent businessman, Bedros Sirinoglu, who considers himself the putative leader of the entire Armenian community.

Sensing that the latter is an overly forceful person who tries to put all community assets under his sway, the parish council has decided to pursue the case under the auspices of the Patriarchate.

Since the Patriarchate does not enjoy the civil status to be able to conduct any business operation, the Vakif (Foundation) Hovaguim 1461, to whose account the funds have been transferred, has taken over.

The compensation has been awarded from the Ministry of Education, a total sum of 26 million Turkish liras. But only 20.6 million has been deposited in the church account so far. The fee for the lawyer who has handled the case has yet to be determined. Originally it was agreed to pay 20 percent of the compensation which later was reduced to 14 percent, as negotiated by the vice president of the Hospital Board, Herman Balian. It is apparent that some inexperience has played its role, because the lawyer, Ali Ejbeloglu, has deposited the compensation to his own account and he has transferred the balance to the church account, after deducting his fee. He has promised to issue a receipt or a statement, but he is nowhere to be found. It is reported that he has gone fishing in the Maldives!

The total compensation of 20.6 million is more than $6 million. A similar amount is also anticipated from the municipality of Istanbul, bringing the total to $11-12 million.

A triad is being formed which will comprise Hovaguim 1461, the Parish Council of the Beykoz Church and VADIP (a confederation of Armenian charity foundations) headed by Sirinoglu. The latter, apparently afflicted with a severe case of sour grapes, will play second fiddle in the future operation of the entire process. He has been openly critical in the press about the process thus far. In his estimation, the community is at a loss of 2 million Turkish liras and he expresses doubt over the competence of the individuals involved in managing the assets. At this time, the plan seems to be to acquire rental properties to generate income for community needs.

It is also anticipated that the real estate values may increase over the years.

The community has a different perspective about this compensation than the historic one. It will take this compensation out of that historic context out of necessity and consider it a gift, a windfall that promises to help all the community institutions.

Once they take the issue out of its historic context, the community leaders will be grateful to the government of President Recep Tayyip Erdogan, which unlike its predecessors, has taken the initiative to return a piece of community property to the Armenians, not necessarily out of a sense of charity or justice, but as a political ploy to comply with the rules of the European Union.

The government’s motives do not concern the leaders of the Armenian community as long as the funds will endow the community with more power to endure.

Mr. Sirinoglu, who was indirectly hoping to see Archbishop Aram Atesyan take center stage in the Patriarchal election, seems to be sidelined. The current case also slipped from his grip, making him angry.

Time may heal the rift in the leadership when positive results are generated.

If the Istanbul model succeeds, it may also serve as an example of altruism for other communities as well, an altruism which all the Armenian communities need to survive in the cruel world of globalism.